by Sandra Arnold
Almost everyone called her Mouse. She’d thought it was because she didn’t talk much, but when her father told her stories about his three aunts who were renowned for their beautiful hair, Fern began to think the name might have come about because of her own hair. Her father said his eldest aunt, Sapphire, had hair as blue-black as a raven’s wing. The hair of the middle one, Ruby, glowed like embers, and the hair of the youngest, Pearl, was pure moonlight. They’d been real beauties in their time, he said, and everyone called them the Princesses, but after their fiancés were killed in the war they shaved their heads, wore black for the rest of their lives and rarely ventured outside. Her father had known them only as the maiden aunts and by then their grey hair was pulled back in tight rolls.
His own father’s hair had been jet black, he said, and his mother was fair. His sister, who’d died young, had hair so black it was almost blue and his own hair had been ash blond. It often happened, he said, that when one parent had black hair and the other fair, that the offspring had blond, black or red hair. She asked him why, in that case, her own hair had no colour at all. He said it came from her mother’s side of the family, all of whom, apart from her mother, had hair like ginger ale, with personalities that got up your nose in the same way. The husbands of her mother’s three sisters had died young, he said. ‘No surprises there! But don’t tell your mother I said that.’
After hearing these stories Fern drew three princesses, one with black hair, one red and one silver. She gave them the names of her father’s aunts. He showed her how to draw luxuriant ringlets, just as his father had described their hair. She drew beautiful dresses for them with sparkling jewels, and made up scary adventures. With just the cat as audience she acted out the part of each princess defeating three gingery witches. Her teachers advised her to read more widely than princess stories, so she did, but at night her dreams were of Sapphire, Ruby and Pearl.
When her mother’s three sisters came on their annual visit they complained as usual about the house, the curtains, the meals, and Fern.
‘Mouse by name. Mouse by nature.’
‘Cat’s got her tongue.’
What Fern dreaded most was when they smiled and said, ‘Now, Mouse. Say something.’
The harder she tried, the more her tongue froze to the roof of her mouth.
Her mother, to help Fern develop confidence in social situations, sent her to drama classes. The skills she learned there didn’t result in her speaking more, but they did help her to observe her aunts more closely. She noticed their tone of voice when they told her mother that if they’d been blessed with children, they wouldn’t have brought them up like Mouse, and what had their sister expected by marrying a man so socially inept? She saw that the smiles that never reached their eyes were only there to disguise the words that came out of their mouths. She asked her mother why she didn’t stand up to them, and why her father always left the house when they came to visit. Her mother said something had happened to the aunts when they were young that twisted them. Harsh words wouldn’t untwist them, she said, which was why she encouraged Fern’s father to absent himself during their visits. Her own philosophy was to kill with kindness.
Fern’s father bought her a microscope. He showed her how to dissect mice and Fern’s focus shifted from drawing princesses to drawing diagrams of mouse innards.
Years later, while she was packing for university, she found her drawings of Sapphire, Ruby and Pearl in the back of a cupboard.
Social interactions at university were as difficult as she’d feared and she considered giving up and hiding in a hole. Instead, she dyed her hair black, red and silver. When she encountered those whose aim was to hurt, she dealt with them as Sapphire, Ruby or Pearl. And although this made it difficult for anyone to know who she really was, no one ever called her Mouse.
After Fern graduated, her mother said she would arrange a farewell dinner and invite the aunts to help celebrate her achievements. Fern said university bitches were one thing, but gingery witches were something else. She asked her mother to cancel their visit. Her mother, pretending not to hear, said, ‘Did you know that ferns clear pollutants from the air and remediate the soil?’
Fern shaved off her hair.
The aunts said nothing about Fern’s shaved head, but patted their corrugated iron perms rather more than necessary. They interrogated Fern about her degree and the new job she was going to in forensic science. They looked at her with pursed lips and uncomprehending eyes before weighing in with their opinions that Mouse had changed. Her university education had made her think she was a clever clogs, they said, but in fact, it had simply made her opinionated, which was a very unattractive attribute in a girl. And with no hair and all those opinions she might well turn out to be a passable scientist, but she’d never find a good husband. Or any sort of husband, they added, staring at Fern’s mother, who pretended not to hear. They turned their gaze on Fern and waited for her reaction.
Fern smiled at them as if they’d just given her a huge compliment. Then she brought out a chocolate mousse and set it on the table. ‘I made it for you,’ she said.
The aunts’ jaws dropped. They darted nervous glances at each other. ‘You haven’t put mouse poison in the mousse, have you Mouse?’
‘Fern,’ she said. ‘My name is Fern.’ And handed each of them a large slice.
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is the author of five books. Her most recent work, a flash fiction collection, Soul Etchings (Retreat West Books, UK) and a novel, The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell (Mākaro Press, NZ) were published in 2019. Her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally. In August 2020 she was awarded a writing residency at the Robert Lord Writers Cottage in Dunedin to complete a new collection of flash fiction.
Learn more at www.sandraarnold.co.nz.