As you know, voices chatter inside everyone’s bone-box. The only difference between the sane and the insane is that the sane don’t anthropomorphize these voices. For the most part, six-year-old Angela realized that the voices speaking to her were just parts of herself, but sometimes they told her things she couldn’t have possibly known. Things about the moon – how it had been another planet before a powerful meteorite tore it from its orbit and left it floundering until it was sucked into Earth’s tow. Things about the colonies of microscopic life that lived on her skin – colonies with children and railways and love and death. Things about regrowing your fingerprints.
Angela shook her head to clear out the voices. She walked through her family’s dark kitchen and up the quiet servants’ stairs. The voices.
Angela wore an old hat of her mother’s – a cloche hat, shaped like a bell, that sat so low on her head that she had to tip her face up to see you. The hat was white and striped with pink silk bands. Shortened peacock feathers stuck out of one side. Her father had loved the hat. She wore it because he was coming home today from his business trip to Asia.
Angela walked into her father’s study. On the wall hung a framed pencil sketch of Mark Twain, with a quote from him that little Angela had long since memorized: “I thought it would be a great thing to give a whole lot of freedom to the Filipinos, but I guess now that it’s better to let them give it to themselves.”
She looked at an old tan chair with wheels that sat mummified under bed sheets in the corner. That’s when she heard the door open and her father call up: “Where’s my little girl?”
“Here!” she shouted and stood in the doorframe, waiting for him to climb the stairs.
His black hair was lined with oily comb-tracks. He looked tired and his linen beige coat was wrinkled, but he was smiling. “You waiting for me?”
He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her up for a huge hug. “Want me to show you where I’ve been?”
She nodded, almost knocking her hat off.
Her stepped in, on his long legs, and tore the bed sheet off his old chair. “Hop on the chair. We are off on our trip!” He waited until she sat down then he pushed her around the rooms, past their tall windows, showing trimmed trees all around their vast property.
She yelled out: “Ready!”
“Yes! Stay seated, Pet. Here, on our tour, we have some beautiful temples on the side of a mountain. Bow your head three times to show respect.”
Angela, in shiny white shoes and white stockings, bowed her head and counted: “One, two, three.”
Her father continued pushing her on the chair, his leather soles tapping on the floor. They swirled by a plump, grey chair in the corner near a pot of ivy on a gold stand that was starting to grow up the wall. He pointed to his left. “And here, right here we have a bed of whale meat on radishes –”
“Ew, Papa! I don’t want to eat whale!”
“Oh, but you have to. You can’t be rude to your hosts!” He stretched a long, lean arm out and across the room crowded with imaginary Asian dignitaries.
Angela picked up her pretend piece of whale and ate it. Her face scrunched up in distaste.
He cheshired with the same brown eyes. “Now, it’s not that bad, is it?”
“Papa, it’s chewy!”
He stopped. “You know, Pet, whale is chewy. How did you know that?”
“The voices told me.”
He shook his head dismissively then grabbed his little girl up from the chair and spun her around until her black hair flew out straight and his face turned red. Just then Angela’s mother, his young wife, knocked on the door. She peered in and smiled at the two of them. Her dress – the fancy one with the purple velvet trim at the bottom – hung just an inch above the floor.
“You just got back from a long trip. You’re too tired for all this now,” she said. “Take your daughter upstairs and then you go lie down. I’ll bring you some tea.”
“Yes, my wife,” he smiled at Angela, winking.
On the way up the stairs, Angela laid her tiny head against her father’s warm linen shirt, listening to his heartbeat, thick and struggling, like a gong wrapped in cotton.
“Papa, your chest is sick. It’s squeezing up.”
“Oh, I don’t feel sick.”
“No, Papa –”
“Ready to fly?” He turned her upside down and pulled her through the air to her room.
Two hours later Angela sat up in her white bed. The voices in her head were making lots of noise.
They said: “Here he goes! There he goes! Watch him go! Now! Now!”
They grew louder and louder until they screamed together like a steam whistle. Angela put her tiny hands up to her ears. She thought the noise was coming from inside her own skull until she heard a crash upstairs and the sound of her usually quiet mother yelling for help.
“Mommy!” she yelled out, barely hearing her own voice over the whistling, high-pitched voices and her mother’s screaming.
Angela’s father was buried the following week. She wore a small black veil over her blank stare. Being just six, she didn’t really know what forever meant.
While Angela’s mother cried herself to sleep that week, the voices sang songs to Angela. Their favorite was one about a sheep who could fly high into the sky, where she would fall asleep on the clouds. Whenever anyone came near Angela the voices stopped their silly songs. The voices didn’t like other people – they only liked Angela.
Madness. Sometimes it comes on like a waterfall and sometimes it’s a tiny leak behind the wall of the shower that you don’t know about until the wall explodes – but there is always a leak. Always fluids finding the softest parts and working on them until something breaks open.
A year passed. Angela now understood that there were five distinct voices, and they could each talk to her in her mind. They warned her of people approaching or of emotions working their way near her, usually from her sad mother – emotions that the voices said looked like strings wiggling in the air.
They assured her that her father was in Heaven. They said soon her mother would be, too.
Isolated with her worried, pale nanny and her mother’s constant moans, Angela loved the voices. They were fun, like a rough group of kids on the playground. They laughed and teased her. They liked her hat.
“Angela,” the nanny called out from downstairs. “Let’s go outside for a walk. Get some fresh air. You are such a lovely girl. Don’t you want to go outside?”
Angela looked at the portrait of her father on the wall in her bedroom. He wore a tall black hat and, in his lapel, a paper flower that she had made for him. She closed her eyes and felt the pull of the world inside her mind. It was dark and humid, calm and comfortable.
“Stay here and we will play you a picture show with only pictures of your father,” one voice said.
“We have so many pictures to show you,” another voice added.
“You don’t need anyone. We are your family now.”
Angela responded in her mind: “I’d like to see some pictures of Papa.”
“Then we can play?” they asked in unison.
Giggling, Angela closed her door. “Yes, sillies, then we can play.”
Tammy Lynne Stoner has been published in Unshod Quills – who nominated her for a Million Writers Award, Folio, The Portland Review, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, Pif Magazine, and others. She won a fellowship to Kenya from the Summer Lit Seminars, and has attended Tin House twice. In the past, Tammy has worked as a roadie for Willie Nelson, a biscuit maker, a medical experimentee, a waitress in a Greek diner, and the Fiction Editor of Gertrude Press. Now she teaches college. Tammy lives in Portland, OR where she strives to drink enough water. See: TammyLynneStoner.com
–Art by Marta Bevacqua
–Art by Alphan Yýlmazmaden
–Art by Seamus Travers