"We need to decorate this place for Christmas!"
It was Christopher's declaration, with his arms spread out over the attic kingdom before him. The more time we spent locked up in our hidden prison, the more handsome age made him, and the more he looked like Daddy. I also spent more time thinking of this hollow place where we were kept like lab rats as a kingdom. The grandmother was an evil witch who put our mother, the queen, in a deep sleep, unable to visit with her children, the princes and princesses, who were held captive in a high tower. Perhaps it was a silly fantasy for a child, but it amused us quite a bit of the afternoons leading up to Christmas. It kept our minds off other things.
We spent a lot of time distracting ourselves with fantasies in the days leading up to Christmas.
Now, my brother had come up with another great distraction. "Whatever do you mean, my dear Christopher?" I asked. "We've already decorated the attic. You do still see the flowers hanging all over the place, don't you?"
Cory and Carrie found this endlessly funny; they had already begun to giggle.
"Oh, Cathy, it's so sad to see your mind go." He patted me on the head. I swatted at him.
The twins giggled more, and louder.
"Very funny. What do you mean?"
"It's winter. These are spring flowers. They must be replaced with decorations befitting the season. Christmas decorations, and winter flowers." Chris picked up one of the books Mama had brought us over the course of the year. "This book will show us how to make stars, and snowflakes, and winter flowers out of paper. We can color them gold and silver and cover our stars with glitter."
"You can't make snowflakes," Carrie pointed out. "Only God can by making it snow."
"Carrie, weren't you listening? It's like Christopher said. We're going to make them out of paper and hang them up instead of the spring flowers," I explained.
"Oh!" Carrie sprang up with the scissors in her hand and began to cut the flowers down. With Cory gleefully joining her, they had those flowers down in five minutes flat. What was it with children, taking as much joy in destroying what they had created as they did in creating it? I don't remember being like that.
We spent the entire afternoon cutting out stars and snowflakes by the patterns in the book. The first time I unfolded my paper and showed her a beautiful snowflake, Carrie gasped and squealed with delight, demanding that I do it again. The second time, I went slower, trying to make her understand that you could carve these patterns out of paper with just a few intricate cuts, but she still thought it was magic when I unfolded a second snowflake.
The twins were too young to make snowflakes by themselves; they kept making crooked, mutant flakes, but we hung those up with the others anyway. They were better at tracing stars and flower petals to glue together to make complete flowers. Chris looked through a book about horticulture and told us the names of various flowers that bloomed in the winter and ones that were associated with Christmas. Poinsettia, mistletoe, snowdrops, pansies, dogwood (but we would only make a paper shrub with the red bark, never the yellow - oh no, not the yellow), and a couple that had strange names but beautiful pictures in the books... They were cirrhosa and the Algerian iris. The cirrhosa has lovely speckled petals that were especially fun to color, and the Algerian iris is so gorgeous, I could look at it all day. We cut out pieces for the flowers until our fingers were sore and we got hand cramps. It was all worth it.
Our next step was to color everything and cover it with glitter. Gold glitter, silver glitter, blue glitter, glitter of all colors so our stars and flowers would look like they were covered in ice crystals and our snowflakes would catch the light like real snow. Once the glue dried, we hung it all up and watched our winter wonderland glisten and shine in the light. I spun myself around and around in the middle of a large group of our creations with sparkling flashes in my eyes and laughed until I fell on one of our attic beds with Cory and Carrie next to me.
I must say, we made the most beautiful Christmas wonderland anyone has ever made, even if some of the snowflakes were deformed. They were a little damaged, a little off, just like us.
As if to prove it, we had another visit with Mother for Christmas which did not prove to be anywhere near normal. While other families sat down at a large table with a spread of food fit for a kingdom, we ate in our little group of rooms at our small table. Mama did bring us excellent gifts and decent food, the best she could do, but the best part of that Christmas for me was our magical wonderland upstairs.
Part of me wanted to keep it from her, keep it our secret place, but instead, we invited her in. Mama stood in her beautiful dress and marveled at how glittery it all was and even said our snowflakes looked real, covered in ice crystals. It actually made me feel warm inside.
Would I ever stop loving her and see her for what she really was?
One of the best presents we received, as it turned out, was a large box of maple candy. We became just about obsessed with it. It became our medicine, a pill to soothe how hurt and deprived we really were. Deprived of sunlight, deprived of love, deprived of normalcy.
The maple candy also served as a secret reward between Chris and I. The candy given to us by our mother the stranger somehow became obscene, and I reveled in it.
A few nights after Christmas, after Carrie and Cory had fallen asleep, Chris was out on the roof under the gable outside the attic window by himself. As I neared the window, I could hear him panting and making weird sounds that were something between pleasure and pain. The noises made me stir between my legs; it felt good in all the wrong ways, but I didn't understand it.
Closer to the window, and closer, I could see he had one of his secret catalogs out there, the ones with the half-naked women in lingerie in them, picture after picture of them. Leaning out the window, he didn't see me at first, and I saw all that he was doing.
It was quite a shock. I can't describe it, I can't! What he was doing with his hand! Unable to hold it back, I cried, "Christopher! What are you doing?!"
It startled him very badly; he gasped and told me to go away. Christopher blushed so crimson I might've thought his face was covered with blood.
But, strangely enough, I was rooted to the spot. My curiosity would not be denied. "Why are you doing that?" I climbed out onto the roof with him.
"Cathy, don't tease me. That's cruel."
"I'm not teasing you. I really want to know."
The rhythm of his hand slowed down to a crawl as he spoke to me. Chris didn't want to do it in front of me. "Haven't you noticed our bodies changing as we get older? I wake up and this thing is stiff. It's stiff all the time now. If I don't touch it, it gradually begins to hurt."
My hands over my mouth, laughter bubbled out of me. I couldn't help it. He looked mortified. "I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mean to make you feel bad. This is just such an awkward time."
"Tell me about it."
We had no girlfriends, no boyfriends to turn to when these feelings came upon us. No parents to talk to when we really needed them. Even if Mother had come into the attic just when I had a question about adult things, I wouldn't have been comfortable asking her because she couldn't understand. She had never been trapped in an attic with her handsome brother while her body was changing. She existed in the real world.
I wanted to be sexy, desirable, a siren like my mother. Just to see what it felt like. To surprise Chris, I took out one of the paper mistletoe plants that we had made and held it over our heads. "Now you have to kiss me."
Searching my face with a dubious look, he gave me a small, innocent kiss. I gestured toward his stiff member. "Do you want a kiss here too?"
"Cathy... if I thought you were serious..."
"I am." I quickly lowered my head. He gasped and sighed like he was shivering.
I had heard this whispered about in the school halls, in Mama and Daddy's hushed conversations I wasn't supposed to hear, and even at the grocery store once, where two high school girls were discussing how to do it while giggling over the bananas.
I wasn't just talking about it. I was doing it.
Christopher tried to control himself, but a couple of times he impatiently bucked his hips and it hit me in the back of the throat, making me gag. Still, I felt powerful, because I was the one in control. I could drive a man wild if I practiced and got better at it.
When he had finished, I made a face because the activity left a sour taste in my mouth.
"Here," Chris said, and held out a maple candy. "This will help."
I opened my mouth and he laid the candy on my tongue as if I was taking Communion.
Even if I want to be like her in small, subtle ways, my mother did not define who I would become. I would never abandon my children in an attic for the sparkle of the real world, and leave them to unsavory activities in which they could not help but experiment.
Sometimes I wondered how my mother would react if she knew how many maple candies dissolved on my tongue that winter. On the roof, underneath the stars, or under our paper stars, turning and sparkling in the wind from the window, up in the attic.
Our sanctuary, our prison.