The great house where I grew up was always singing. A symptom of old foundations and the wind seeping in through every crack, my father told me. Dress warmly, Alice, and you’ll be fine. In winter I wore gloves over my stiff fingers, and in summer my face would be kissed by the gentle breeze no matter where I was.
I always thought it was mother caressing me; her feather-light strokes heavy with the love she could no longer give me. When she sung to me, I smiled and sang along with her. Our voices blended in the great house her father had left to Papa and I. He never liked our singing.
“It is improper,” he frowns, “For a respectable young lady to have such wild imaginings of a dead woman.”
“Your wife,” I tell him, but he is no longer listening.
Father’s friend is a physician. They talk in muted conversations and I am given medicine: tonics and phosphates. I am prescribed long walks in the country air until I am well again. I walk and walk but mother still sings to me.
Papa finds a house in the country for me to live.
It’s grand, certainly, far bigger than the walls where mother sings to me. The people there smile at me and wear clean uniforms. They say they will take care of me until I am well again. The walls here do not resonate with mother’s singing. Instead, they vibrate with the sound of chatter; other respectable ladies who are waiting to be told they are well again.
My room looks over the green grass, and in the distance I can see the tree branches dancing in the wind.
I don’t see much of the house in the end.
They take away my books first, so I read pamphlets and announcements on the communal board. But when I ask for a newspaper- mother does love the advertisements after all- they whisper and say no. So I wander the grounds, chasing after mother’s voice. I’m far away from her but she comes to me still, and when I can’t hear her I lift my skirts and spin until she’s laughing along with me.
When they find us giggling on the grass, they put me back in my room and the door only opens when I bathe once a day. Two days.
But no matter, because I hear her still, when the window opens and she rushes in to kiss my cheeks. I tell her about the people here. They don’t like me reading, I say. They want me to learn sewing so I will be prepared when I marry. They don’t like me talking to you, I say.
They leave my room unfurnished now, because my imagination is too great. A wild thing never to be tamed! If I had a pen and paper I would write it down and send it to all the other women here. We could read them together after supper then sew great tapestries just like the stories of old. They keep mother outside the window, and she howls against the pane of glass. No matter, we will find a way.
I lift my skirts and spin, but the air here is stale and thick with dust. My brow runs with sweat and I fall as the room whirls. I breathe laboriously and imagine mother is pushing inside my lungs and forcing my life. Ah, that’s right. She always did like me rosy-cheeked and excited. The walls in my room don’t creak with her soft, soft, singing, even if I press my ear right next against the wallpaper.
There is a scratch in the wallpaper. The yellow rips to reveal the white paint underneath; a torn head pulled up into two white ears; he will listen to me. When I finish, he hops about the room, and I chase him.
“Eat, Alice,” he tells me. “Drink.”
So I do. To keep my strength, you see. It pleases them, and they tell me when I am well again I may take my meals in the hall with the other guests. The food makes me grow larger; they will give me small portions until my skirts fit again.
Mother, it has been some time since we last talked. I miss our singing. I try to sing by myself, but the tune is never quite right. I press my ear to the wall to hear you, but all I have now is the white rabbit; he hops around the room and so I follow. He always seems to be in a rush, mother. I wonder what world lies beyond the scratched paper- that blasted yellow that stains my fingernails so. The rabbit has friends, mother: birds who can’t fly and little mice who chitter French poetry to me. They race about the room, round and around and around and around-
They give me cake, mother. I am becoming a lady, you see, and one of them allows a small candle and wishes me many happy returns. I think one return is enough, don’t you think? A return by your side, just once, and that will suffice for me. The caterpillar has taken a liking to that orange flame. Perhaps it is a welcome change to the ghastly yellow. I’ll give it to him, mother, and he will curl up by the glow and breathe in the tendrils of smoke as we continue our conversations.
Who am I?
Why, I don’t quite know.
What am I doing here?
Papa brought me to live here.
When the candle burns out, he crawls away. I try to follow, but the yellow paper bars my way: I shall remain here. My cheeks are wet, from the sharp smoke that stung my eyes perhaps, or the unfulfilled yearning of reaching that wonder land beyond the walls, where animals play croquet and a tea party awaits. Mother, you would love it there, I believe. You could sing like a lark and those who listen would only smile and applaud you. Perhaps this room is far bigger than I realised! What adventures lie beyond the paper!
Yes, indeed, now I have something to look forward to! I follow the white rabbit and I am the treasured guest at his tea party, the swirling patterns and designs made only greater by the stained fungus that creeps downward. Mother, I didn’t see this before. They wouldn’t let you sing so you drew me an adventure on your walls! I am only sorry I didn’t notice before.
Let’s play croquet, shall we? No, I didn’t bring any of the mallets. This fellow- oh, a sweet flamingo, is he? Well, we can turn him upside down and use the hedgehog for a ball- he’s always curled up like that, anyway. You look far grander than I’ve ever seen you before. Although why won’t you come out when those smiling faces appear? They say they will help me, mother. Is it because you’re afraid they won’t let you come to me? No matter, I will go to you instead. The wallpaper is not so thick, mother, though it lies in shreds on the floor. Yellow dotted with red! My, that one does have a bright smile. From ear to ear, though it never quite reaches his eyes. He tells me he will call for Papa. What for? I am perfectly happy here now. In fact, I do not wish to leave! Let’s stay, mother, for we are together once more.
And why-! There he is, your husband and my father.
“Dear God, Alice,” he cries. “What on earth are you doing!”
“After our game of croquet, we are invited to a tea party, Papa!” Now why indeed is he crying like that? Such a noise- he’ll frighten off the sweet animals!
“Is this my fault?” he asks in between great heaving sobs.
“Father, you must excuse me,” I tell him.
And I, sweet Alice, return to you.