Half the time, I was at a complete loss of what to do. His mind worked at lightning speed, and he was always ready with a witty retort that left me utterly defeated. It was like living with an incredibly socially inept adult.
And this "adult" was, at nine years old, a terrible thing to behold.
Our relationship was, to say the least, disturbed. His quiet, brooding presence frightened me. I would freeze up whenever he floated down the stairs—for he never really seemed to walk, but glide through a room. I always felt like I was being silently evaluated, like he knew my maternal skills did not fare as well as they should. We both knew that I was a complete failure as a mother, and he a complete failure as a son…and we never hesitated to tell each other.
Motherhood was something that I had eagerly awaited my entire life. As a child, I would carefully dress and tend to my dolls, brush their tight ringlets, rock them to "sleep," and sing them lullabies. Mother even bought me a pretend carriage to cart baby dolls around in, and she would laugh as I pranced about the house, scolding and cooing at the make-believe infant. "Bernadette," she would say, "You will make a fine wife and mother one day!" I believed it. I wanted the perfect husband, the perfect household, and the perfect baby; many babies, darling, chubby little things with full lips and bright eyes and rosy cheeks that would giggle and cry and cuddle when I hugged them.
Erik scarcely giggled as an infant, and cuddling was absolutely out of the question.
I did not eat for nearly three days after he was born. I was simply numb from shock; everything that could have gone wrong did. My dear Charles was dead, and not a week after I gave birth to his son. The thought that a part of Charles would live on was comforting, at least until I saw what lay at the foot of the bed. When the midwife ran out of the room muttering the Lord's Prayer, my hope flew out the window. I did not blame her; I would have gladly fled if I could have. How was hideousness of that sort even possible?
I pushed these depressing thoughts aside, and turned my attention to the task at hand: scrubbing the plate that was submerged in soapy water. My life was reduced to endless, monotonous tasks to keep my mind off of the injustices of life. I knew I was a spoiled, superficial wretch, but I was also stubborn. I did not deserve a son like him—
"Are you cleaning again?"
The silken, melodious tone of his voice chilled me to the bone, and I jumped, dropping the antique china to the floor where it promptly shattered.
"What are you doing in here?" I gasped, hand over my heart. From the depths of the mask, his curious yellow eyes bore through my soul.
"You are cleaning again," he said quietly, ignoring my question, "That is all you ever do."
"A house must be rid of filth," I snapped, my heart ramming against my ribcage, "No one wants to live in the company of scum."
His eyes narrowed and he gracefully made his way to the washbasin, dodging the pieces of china spread out over the wooden floor. Skeletal hands snatched up another plate and began scrubbing. He was ridiculously tall for his age, but thin as a rail. I had long ago given up trying to get him to eat. When he did take his meals, he would bring a small piece of food and some water to his domain in the attic. A single loaf of bread could last him weeks.
I stood behind him in silence, watching his backbone slither beneath his tattered shirt as he worked with speed and efficiency. Shaggy black hair hung to his shoulders, and his clothes billowed over his slim form. Yet despite all this, he maintained the air of a royal. I almost envied him, in a strange way. He succeeded at everything he attempted, almost as if nature was apologizing for bestowing him with such a face.
"These dishes aren't clean," he said suddenly.
"What do you mean that they aren't clean? I just finished washing them!"
"That may be, but they aren't clean." He lifted a plate so that it glimmered in the light from the window. "You see, if you hold it up to the light and tilt it like this, you can easily see blotches of residue left over. Scrub harder next time."
I bristled, though I knew he was right.
"Don't you dare tell me what to do! I know how to wash dishes!"
"It doesn't look like it."
My hand collided with the back of his ungrateful head with such force that he lost his balance and fell onto his side with a resounding thud. I was startled at my own strength, and darkly mused that practice must have made perfect.
At least I knew I was good at something.
"Get up," I ordered.
Erik stood calmly, a trickle of blood snaking down his neck. He lazily picked up a plate and examined it, much like one would a painting. Then, without the slightest warning, he spun around and hurled the antique dish at me. I screamed and ducked, cringing as it hit the wall behind me and met the same fate as its brother.
"You little ass!" I screeched, "That was my grandmother's!"
"Your grandmother is dead. I doubt she cares," he snarled, panting.
I screamed again, this time in fury, and launched myself at him. He grabbed another plate and held it in the air, waving it threateningly. That stopped me dead in my tracks.
"Put it down! That set is a family heirloom! Put it down, or so help me, that nasty face of yours will be nothing compared to the rest of you!"
He did not listen; he never did when his temper was aroused. It was as if he were possessed. His foot slammed into my chest and I was thrust backward, rolling to avoid being hit by yet another plate. He lifted the entire stack of dishes and, one by one, hurled them at me, eyes mad with rage. The noise was deafening, and I was dizzy with panic. He was going to kill me!
But as suddenly as it started, it stopped. A dish that he'd been ready to throw fell from his limp hand, and he sank to the ground, hunched and gasping for air.
I was trembling, bruised and bloodied from the impact of his fury, and sobbing softly. He did not seem aware of my presence. He was staring at the floor, one hand clutching his side as his breath came out in ragged gasps. Something akin to guilt arose in the back of my mind. How I hated myself! How I hated Charles for dying and leaving me to fend for myself!
How I wept for my son, my hideous, brilliant son who had established a genius that most men will never dream of, and only at the age of nine. I heard his compositions daily, and it never crossed my mind to silence them. Every emotion possible floated through his locked door, weaving their way through the old house and around my heart.
And his voice! That triumphant, melodious voice that brought the angels themselves to their knees. The sheer potential of that voice raised goosebumps on my arms. He was only nine! As the years passed, time would only magnify its glory.
And I wept harder, for I knew that the world would never know his brilliance, would never hear the miracle that was his voice, would never be blessed with such a fascinating soul such as his…all because of that face. As long as he looked as he did, he did not stand a chance.
As long as ignorant, crude, merciless people such as myself existed, he would never know happiness.
I crawled over to where Erik was sitting. He flinched as I hesitantly placed a hand upon his back, and then tensed, ready for another beating. My hand moved up and down the sharp contours of his back in a soothing, rhythmic pattern.
Silence reigned for a while until he spoke, so quietly that I strained to hear him.
"I am sorry for what I said about your grandmother."
I blinked, startled by a rare apology.
"I am not sorry about the plates. They were very ugly."
He looked so small, so…young. For a few minutes, our elaborate facades were stripped away and we sat upon the kitchen floor, mother and son, child and child.