Treasures |
by Amanda Su Wilgus

Margot says it happened before I was born and Jamie says she couldn’t remember it, but I don’t think I believe her. She says she remembered the rabbits, but she didn’t remember what happened to them, in the end, or why our mother lost her wits. I asked her about it again, not that long ago, but she claims her memory is fuzzy. I don’t know though, my memory’s not that fuzzy, and I remember when she came outside one day to play baseball out back. I remember Jamie had on that dumb baseball cap she used to wear every day that summer, the blue one with the Superman “S” on the front and red flap in the back. She said it was funny and didn’t I have a sense of humor, but I just thought it was dumb.

Anyway, it’s like this. When my mother was cleaning out the attic one summer, she descended the stairs with her hair matted against her forehead and neck and a wire cage in her hand. She was looking at it with bewilderment until I tapped my fingers on the wall so that she would notice me at the foot of the stairs. She laughed lightly to herself and continued down the stairs, past me, proceeding to carry the cage to the back yard. I followed quickly behind and joined her. She was staring at it again when I arrived, so I stared, too. We stood like that for quite some time until I noticed the grass beneath the cage was dry and brittle and the roots of the magnolia tree between us showed through the sandy dirt. I couldn’t help fidgeting, wondering why my mother was standing, staring at this cage with cobwebs in its corners and rust on its wires. I motioned to it absently and she only squinted her eyes. Clouds skirted over our yard and the sun bore down on us between the gray. I looked at my mother, trying my best to gauge her thoughts by the small movements in her round face. Skin sagged beneath her eyes and the creases on her forehead deepened. As I inhaled the humid air noisily, she read my mind and said,

“Come on Dale, let’s go inside.”

She turned from the cage and walked across the crunchy, brown grass. I sensed something strange in the faint tilt of her head, so I called after her. She slowed to a stop and wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her weathered, plain white T-shirt. She had her moments like this, stopping and standing and staring and thinking a little too long on what seemed the littlest things.

Then the sun jumped loudly through the clouds and glinted across the yard to find our white magnolia petals, bouncing right back into my mother’s face as she turned toward me. It gave her a slight, girlish raise of a shoulder and tuck of the chin to shade herself. I couldn’t help thinking she looked absolutely beautiful, and I remembered an old photo I’d found of her and my father, with this same radiant look under a tall palm tree in Hawaii, taken twenty years earlier.

It was my sister Jamie, though, who spoke first, and not to either of us out on the lawn. She came through the back door into the garage that day and, well, my sister’s got a sharp eye, so she saw that wire cage sitting solidly in the yard right away.

“Dad, is that our old rabbit cage?”

My father was working his way through our garage, which, I should tell you, was filled to its capacity with all the strangest, most bizarre antiques our neighbors had left on their front curbs. He could barely navigate between all the dusty chandeliers, leather bar stools, paper lampshades and unidentifiable wooden figurines, but he looked around toward the yard behind him like some kind of contortionist and waved it off. “Why don’t you go play catch with your Uncle Ray?”

Uncle Ray, who was visiting from Reno and feigning interest in his brother-in-law’s antique collection, clinked his foot loudly against a chandelier beside him and cleared his throat.

“No really, Dad, what happened to all those rabbits we used to have? Remember? We had, like, that rabbit from Aunt Judy and Uncle Ray then that other one from the creek and then, like, we had a billion rabbits after that time they escaped from their cages and so we had to get that other cage for all those baby rabbits—”

Uncle Ray cleared his throat louder this time and Jamie stopped talking.

“Jamie, I think you’re talking your Uncle Ray’s ear off about your rabbits.”

“Mike, please, don’t bring me into this. It’s none of my business, I know, but you might as well tell her. She’s old enough.” Uncle Ray faced Jamie. “Your mother and father had a difficult time when—”

“Ray,” my father said sharply, “now is not the time to discuss this.”

“May’s my sister, Mike.”

“Mom?” Jamie asked suspiciously. Ray excused himself, muttering something about being sorry he’d come. My father sighed deeply.

“I’m sorry, Jamie. I didn’t want to do this. Today.”

“What are you talking about? What’s this got to do with Mom?”

He rearranged himself amongst the wooden figurines and settled onto a wheezy, cracked, leather cushion. He looked past Jamie into the yard, at a cardinal fluttering in front of the magnolia tree.

“It was going to be a boy,” he said. “It was that late, we already knew…but there were complications and…things can get complicated. After, your mother did not want those rabbits and all of their baby rabbits around. Too many babies, she said.”

It took me a moment to understand what he was saying, let alone its weight. When I did, I didn’t know what to do with this information. I suppose I gasped and looked back at the wire cage that had gathered an ominous hue of reddish rust, staked out in the middle of our lawn, and then back at my mother who was now crouched in front of me, but I imagine I may have stopped conscious thought altogether. I imagine my mother may have as well, and for that reason I think we were connected very briefly in a moment that neither of us could escape. She was very, very still, and I stared at the sweat gathering at the nape of her neck. Heat radiated from her body, as if electric currents were trying to jump ship to mine. I heard the back door slam and then blinked my eyes a few times. I reached out to touch her, but her skin prickled beneath my fingers and she stood, walking away from me. She stopped in front of the garage, swaying slightly, and my father quietly extricated himself from the antiques, following Jamie.

I didn’t say anything about it to Jamie—I didn’t know what to say—but I know we were thinking the same thing when little cues haunted us later of our phantom limb. We sat down to dinner that evening and I couldn’t help wondering who might have filled that seventh chair, what he’d be like now, if things had worked out differently. No one spoke, and we chewed our food thoroughly, thoughtlessly.

Forks scraped against plates and our heads were bowed, as if in prayer.

“How’s the garden coming along?” my father asked my mother suddenly, giving her a sad, nervous smile before looking away, realizing he might have stumbled upon hazardous territory. She swallowed and set her fork down lightly.

“Fine,” she said. “Just fine. Didn’t you see me today while you were working in the garage?” She maintained a tenuous evenness to her voice.

My father looked at her and tried quickly calculating his response. “Yes, well, maybe—I think maybe I did, when I was taking Ray on a little tour of our collection, but I don’t think they hold the same meaning to Ray as they do for me.” He made an effort to laugh, but my mother kept a level stare on him. “And…and so we just went on in—left the treasures to themselves,” he ended lamely.

So that was it. Treasures. A single word to trigger her and there she went. It was about the shit that was in the garage, the piles on piles of antiques her husband had hoarded and why this obsession, this inane obsession with such old shit when everything around them was getting old, she was getting old, and why didn’t he care about her, hadn’t enough time passed already? Hadn’t she been through it all, and by his side, too? How could he call such objects his treasures, didn’t he understand? Their child was their treasure.

She gasped and looked at Jamie, Margot and me.

I didn’t know that I could feel even sadder than I’d already felt. Our brother didn’t have a life, but ours were insignificant in comparison. We weren’t good enough. Nothing could fill the hole in her heart and we were ashamed and felt infinitesimally minuscule, perhaps not unlike the ova from which we each had grown. Our father became uncharacteristically dark and licked his lips. Jamie’s eyes ran between our father and our mother as mine watched her and Margot, who stared in a hardened gaze, mid-chew, at our mother. Our father rose slowly and hovered over our mother. Then he did something he regretted the rest of his life. He slapped her straight across the face.

“Yes, May. Enough time has passed already.” He walked away from the table and we heard the door to the garage slam a few moments later.

Jamie slowly began clearing dishes, but our mother put her hand on Jamie’s wrist, motioning her to sit. She sat. What was said had been said and we knew nothing could retrieve it. As children, we began the long process of trying to forgive her.

“It’s not—please. Do not follow your father into that garage, Jamie. I hope that all of you,” she looked at us with liquid eyes, “will forget this.” She kept her eyes fastened on me until she slumped forward and pushed herself from the table.

After she’d left and we’d tried our hardest to shove the incident out of the stifled space between the three of us, Margot sniffed and said she had things to do, leaving Jamie with me. Jamie looked at me pathetically, almost pleadingly, and I looked back in disgust. I couldn’t stand it anymore, seeing that dumb cap with its stupid “S” and its red flap and her meek eyes peeking out at me. I promised myself I would never get hurt again. I would leave all of this behind as soon as I could. I didn’t know what I would do but I knew I couldn’t feel this way again.

Amanda Su Wilgus grew up in north Texas. She received a BA from the Plan II Honors program at UT-Austin and recently taught English in Taipei. Her work has appeared in The Bicycle Review and Blue Lake Review; she currently lives in Los Angeles.