by Marcelle Heath
She was known as Mattie to those closest to her, and was eleven when she began to lose her hearing. The dogs snoring at the foot of her bed, the servants’ pitterpatter on the staircase, and her sister’s laughter receded. Faces began to frighten her, as did hands and doors. She didn’t like to be touched or picked up or handled in any way. Mattie climbed trees and rode horses and sat for hours along the banks the river. Later, she was plucked and tied and herded to receptions, where she opened her lips and arms for a girl who held her shoulders and caressed her cheek. Her voice came back but the girl ran off. Mattie’s loneliness was a corruptible force, and she relished her sister’s ruinous nuptials and the country’s suicidal delusions. She bankrolled the SPD and penned a gothic novel under her father’s illegitimate son’s name. Absence and emptiness, she learned, were opposing forces. Near the end of the war, she received a letter from her sister, begging her to take the children away from their father. Instead, Mattie arranged for his disappearance on a hunting trip in Cape York. Her sister never forgave her. Mattie left for the Scottish Highlands to drink and paint, and one Good Friday swore she could hear Schubert. A piano was brought into her chamber so that a long-limbed beauty named Agnes could play it for her. The girl arrived with an obese terrier and hidden pockets in her smock. Mattie listened, but heard nothing. Agnes played it again. During the middle of the girl’s ninth recital, Mattie heard. But the sound that came was not the keys’ crisp melody. It was not the dog snoring by the window. It was not the women gossiping in the kitchen. The girl left with coins for her purse and bread for her mutt. At supper, Mattie barely touched her black pudding. She was escorted to the south lawn, where a blanket was placed over her shoulders. Gulls plunged to the sea below. A figure moved in the distance. She glassed the vegetation with binoculars until she located the girl, Agnes, making her way across the land. The terrier was invisible in the tall brush. Mattie asked why Agnes wasn’t given a lift home and was told that indeed, she had been. “But the girl on the bluff…” she said, making the housekeeper wince from her voice. Mattie watched her youthful lips. It was only a ghost, she said, the ghost of a drowned girl. “What happened to her?” The housekeeper answered with her pretty, kissable lips. That night the sound returned, a fiery constellation, summoning her to the bluff. Mattie took the girl’s outstretched hand, and together they waltzed high above the sea.
In a previous revision, this story had a different title, included two women named James Mason, and took place in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Iowa, and Rome. I’ve been thinking a lot about revision lately, having read Aimee Bender’s Character Motivation. Bender discusses Richard Brautigan’s very short story The Weather in San Francisco, which is about an elderly woman buying a pound of meat from a butcher reluctant to sell it to her. The butcher has an outrageous idea about what the woman will use the meat for, an idea that turns out to be the truth. Bender states that the story is not about character per se, but about “exploring character through objects. It’s about following hunches about character and really trusting those hunches.” I love that. As a character, the basis of Mattie is a real-life figure whose biography intrigued me. Not naming her frees her from history, and allows me to imagine another life for her, one where she has agency. There is something mysterious and courageous about Mattie, and I tried to follow my hunches about her, to see where she would go.
Marcelle Heath’s recent work has appeared in [PANK], Wigleaf, Snake Nation Review, and Necessary Fiction. A contributing reader for Wigleaf’s Top 50 2012, Marcelle is Editor-At-Large for Luna Park Review, and a former editor for Fictionaut. This is her second publication at matchbook; her first was Aunt Ginny’s Lunar Bash, 1974. Marcelle works as a freelance editor and lives in Portland, Oregon with two dogs, one cat, one turtle, and one film professor. Her website is marcelleheath.com.