A is for Annabelle, who turned ten today. She is on a birthday picnic with her parents, wearing what her mother calls her Alice-in-Wonderland dress, and the warm air smells of summer. Annabelle hears chimes in the wind, but her parents, arguing on a blanket, don’t seem to notice. Annabelle might follow the music, later, through the yellow and blue field of wildflowers, into the woods. The chimes seem to call her name, three syllables: “Ann – a – belle.” She laughs and claps her hands. Her parents murmur.
B is for Butterflies. Annabelle sees one now, yellow wings fluttering through the long grass over the hills. She chases it until it lands, then leans over to watch it resting on a blossom. Annabelle thinks it might be looking at her, but she isn’t sure if butterflies have eyes.
Her father collects butterflies, pins them down and seals them under glass. She’s seen him in the garage, where he keeps his collection, looking at them. Sometimes, when he doesn’t know she’s there, he rips off their wings, and that frightens her.
Annabelle shivers and waves her hand at the butterfly. “Go on,” she whispers. “Fly away.” It does.
C is for Cages. Once at another girl’s birthday party Annabelle saw parakeets, yellow and blue, singing in a cage. She looked at them for a minute and decided to set them free. She tugged at the cage door, but a broad soft woman in a flowered dress stopped her. “No, dear,” she said. “Don’t let them out.”
“I want them to fly,” Annabelle said, her eyes suddenly hot and full of tears.
“No,” the woman repeated, leading Annabelle back to cake and ice cream. “Their wings are clipped. They couldn’t fly anyway.”
“Do their wings ever grow back?” Annabelle asked, but the woman didn’t answer.
D is for Dreams, of course. Annabelle dreams of green places, and she often dreams of flying, soaring over woods and water, singing as she goes. One morning, when she was five years old, she said “I flied, Mommy, last night I flied!” Her mother’s eyes went wide and she made a squeaking noise, as if choking on her eggs.
“In her dreams,” her father said sharply, looking up from his paper. “She means in her dreams. Everyone has that dream.”
Annabelle’s mother nodded and looked down at her plate.
Anabelle remembers that, even five years later. She has a very good memory, but far enough back it turns to mist and shadows and pine trees.
E is for Earthworms. Annabelle’s father is a weekend fisherman, and there’s a patch of black dirt behind the house where he digs for worms. Once, young and dirty-kneed, Annabelle watched him dig.
“Catypillars,” she said when he pulled up a long worm, wiggling, and dropped it in the bucket.
“Not caterpillars,” her father said. “Worms.”
“Worms?” Annabelle said, scrunching up her face.
“Yes. Caterpillars are fuzzy, and they turn into butterflies. Worms are slimy, and they don’t turn into anything. But.” He raised his finger in front of Annabelle’s wide gold-flecked eyes. “If you cut a worm in half, both halves go on living.” He took out his pocketknife, laid a worm on a shattered piece of cinderblock, and sliced it neatly in half. There was no blood, and both halves wriggled wildly. “See?”
Annabelle looked for a moment, solemn, and then said “Put it back together, Daddy.”
He frowned, picking up the two wiggling half-worms and dropping them in his bucket. “I can’t, Annabelle. There’s no way to put them together again.”
“Oh,” she said in a quiet voice. But she wondered.
F is for Fairies. Annabelle’s mother is religious, and there are pictures and statues of angels all over the house, with their white wings and pale, pretty faces. When Annabelle was younger, she called them fairies. “No,” her mother said sternly. “They’re angels.”
“But they got wings,” Annabelle said.
Her mother embraced her in freckled arms. “I know, darling, but they’re angels. I promise. And you’re my little angel.”
“I don’t got wings,” Annabelle said scornfully.
G is for Garden. Annabelle’s mother has one, with roses and posies and tulips and other blossoms, and in the summer they buzz with bees. Once Annabelle was sent to pull weeds, but instead she took up flowers and wove them into her red hair, and made chains for her wrists. Her mother squawked and shouted when she saw, but Annabelle was serene, sitting on the lawn with her skirts spread around her. She was a flower.
H is for Hair, sunset-red on Annabelle’s head. Her father’s hair is sandy blonde and short, her mother’s is flat brown and cut in a bob. Annabelle’s hair falls in curly waves, nearly to her knees. It has never been cut.
When Annabelle’s mother brushes her daughter’s hair, as she does every morning, it never snags or tangles. Her mother tells herself it must be the shampoo she uses, but it certainly doesn’t do that for her own hair. She chooses not to think about it. Annabelle’s mother chooses not to think about a great many things.
I is for Innocence, and today as every day Annabelle is drifting farther from that state. Her father watches her sometimes as she plays, frowning, and sometimes he grins like a jack o’ lantern, but he’s never laid a hand on her, even to punish. Sometimes he seems nervous when he hugs her, and he never touches her back for long. Annabelle’s innocence is still complete, but today she turned ten, and as she grows through double digits that innocence will disappear. For some things, some reconnections, time is growing short.
J is for Joy, and that’s what Annabelle was for her parents, or was meant to be, or could have been. “She’s a gift from God,” Annabelle’s mother said when they got their newfound daughter home, but she was hesitant, trembling. She put her hands across her belly. “We — I wanted a baby so much.”
From the kitchen she heard a rasp and her young husband said “She is. You did. There’s just something to take care of first.” Another rasp, metal on stone, and Annabelle’s mother closed her eyes. “Get it sharp,” she said. “Very sharp, so it doesn’t hurt much. I’ll boil some water.”
Somewhere in the house, far from the green places she’d known, baby Annabelle lay on her stomach and cried.
K is for Knives. Annabelle has dim memories, masquerading as nightmares. Even at ten years old, her father has to cut her food; she can’t stand to touch a knife. She doesn’t like meat anyway, because it reminds her too much of her own muscles, moving under the skin. She has muscles in her back that she can flex, but they don’t move anything at all.
She stares at the wall as her father saws away at the food on her plate. She can’t stand to look at the knife. Or at him, wielding it.
L is for Lost things. Annabelle loses things a lot, but her father almost never does; he’s only once lost anything, that she can remember. Listening from the top of the stairs, Annabelle heard him shout at her mother. “They’re gone! They were wrapped in cloth and locked in the chest and now they’re gone! What did you do with them?”
And her mother: “Nothing. I hated them, the way you… brooded over them, but I wouldn’t touch the things.”
“Well then where did they go?”
Her mother, quietly: “Maybe they flew away.”
M is for Music, and for Mystery, and this is both. Those chimes: “Ann – a – belle”, ringing over the hills from the trees. They aren’t birdsong, and they aren’t bells, and Annabelle’s parents, just a few feet away on the blanket, don’t hear a thing. It is Annabelle’s birthday, and she got a pink bike with a basket and a new kite to fly. The kite is in the grass, forgotten, and her bike is back at home.
Annabelle wonders if she’ll be getting another gift.
N is for Normal, and some things aren’t, and those things need to be cut right out. Annabelle’s father knows that, and so does her mother, though it hurts her more.
Annabelle doesn’t think about it. Normal is what things are, and only things that aren’t what they are can be wrong.
O is for Outside, and that’s Annabelle’s earliest memory, of being outside, tiny in the forest, looking up at stars and pine trees. Lost. Like the baby in the rhyme, that came tumbling down when the bough broke and the cradle fell. Then came voices, and two tall people, scooping her from the forest floor, exclaiming, turning her over. Annabelle doesn’t know what the memory means, but her mother sings lullabies and that’s one of the voices, and her father tells stories in measured tones, and that’s the other.
Sometimes Annabelle sneaks out of the house and lies down in her back yard and looks up at the sky, through the pines.
P is for Picnic, and what a wonderful idea that was. “Annabelle would love a birthday picnic,” her mother said, “and it’s such a pretty day. But where should we go?”
“There’s a field I know, by a nice stretch of woods,” her father said thoughtfully.
They packed the car and took Annabelle, and her new kite, to the field. Neither of her parents seemed to remember this place, though they’d often taken walks in the woods here, when they were younger. A strange cloud covers their memories, filling their heads. They’d last seen this field on a summer night like this one, exactly ten years before. They’d come to watch the butterflies.
This was before he started dipping the butterflies, wings and all, in chloroform. Before he locked them under glass.
Before (but only just before, a matter of minutes, perhaps) they found Annabelle.
Q is for Quiet, and Annabelle is that. Even the soughing of the wind has stopped, and her parents are murmuring, sipping lemonade. She can still hear the chimes if she holds her breath, but they’re fading. Even the beating of her heart is enough to make her miss notes: “Ann- – – belle – – -a – belle.” Yes, the chimes are fading, and if she intends to follow them, she must do so soon.
R is for Ripping, when the knife went dull, when things weren’t quite severed and man hands pulled and blood welled up, R is for the Rasp of the knife on the whetstone, but some things are too attached to be cut neatly, no matter how sharp the blade, and they tear.
S is for Scars. Annabelle has two on her back, shiny and wide, running vertically down her shoulder blades. Her mother told her that she stumbled and fell on a board with nails in it, and that’s where the scars come from. Her father told her she was scratched by a dog when she was a baby, and that’s where she got them. Sometimes her muscles spasm beneath the scars. And often in the morning, after a dream of flying, her shoulders ache.
T is for Time, and Annabelle feels it shortening and shortening as the shadows lengthen and the sun slides west.
U is for Umbilicus, the first connection between mother and daughter, which leaves its mark on the child’s belly forever. But Annabelle has no navel, her stomach is as smooth as the skin of a peach, unmarked and untouched. Annabelle’s mother thinks sometimes of umbilical cords being cut with scissors, of that fundamental severance, which she and Annabelle never had. Instead of scissors, there was a knife, and it wasn’t a cord that was cut, not the connection between mother and daughter that was severed, but a different connection altogether.
And now Annabelle is in the field on her birthday, and it seems that while some connections must remain sundered forever, others can be rejoined.
V is for Vigilant, and Annabelle’s mother is that, she always keeps an eye out for her daughter. She can’t have more children, that thought is always on top of her mind, and she rarely lets Annabelle out of her sight. But now her attention wanders, she even forgets Annabelle for a moment, the thoughts fly out of her head and she’s back in her girlhood, laughing with her new husband. Laughing, before Annabelle, and knives, and grisly silky mementos that mysteriously disappear, just as Annabelle is now disappearing over the hills toward the forest.
W is for Worried, and Annabelle knows her parents will be, but the chiming is louder now, a part of her is calling her and that’s more important than anything, and she runs across the fields into the trees, the song in her head like her own voice, her own song, calling her home, and as she runs she can almost feel herself flying.
X is for Xenophobia, the hate of the stranger, and Annabelle doesn’t know that word, and neither does her mother, and while her father does know it, he would never ascribe it to himself.
Yet his daughter is a stranger, and his wife also in many ways, and himself most of all, and he hates them all, really. When he sits in the basement tearing the wings from butterflies and remembering the night they found Annabelle, hate fills him. You can’t turn something into something it’s not, he thinks at the picnic, looking at the fat clouds float effortlessly by. Flying.
And then his wife says “Where’s Annabelle?” and things happen very fast.
Y is for Yell, which Annabelle’s mother does, she stands on the blanket and shouts her daughter’s name. Her husband stands, frowning, hands clenched on a napkin that he rips in half, and they both shout for their daughter, who is gone, gone, and they look for the flutter of a blue dress, for curly red hair, but there’s nothing, not even in the trees, there’s only
Z is for Zephyr, the gentle west wind, coming up suddenly strong over the field from the trees, blowing into the shouting faces of Annabelle’s mother and father, but only the wind answers them, blowing as though buffeted by a million wings and then, like apple blossoms blowing free, like silk streamers in the air, a hundred thousand sunset red and golden butterflies burst from the trees in the forest, flying.
And after it all Annabelle knows she is not a worm, or an angel, or a flower. She is something else, something of the green, something like a butterfly that lost its wings but, after a time, regained them.