My daughter, your stepmother says to you as she presses into your hands a small gift she has made for you—a consolation prize?
Your own mother is dead. True, it’s been less than a year and you’re still grieving but, also true, your father has been lonely. So lonely.
The little pink box is decorated with ribbons and jewels and tiny flowers. And inside? What? Stars?
No, a thorn. Be careful lest you prick your finger.
My daughter, you know your aunt? I hate to tell you this, but I think you should know. Your aunt is telling everyone X.
X is about you, about your mother, your sister. X has to do with the body, the female body, specifically your body, which came from your mother’s body. X has to do with sex and desire and jealousy, with too many lovers or a lack of lovers or the wrong lovers, with clothing, make-up, hair, breasts and legs. With what you eat and what you drink and how you move and what you say.
Your mother’s heart grows bright red and thrums like a hummingbird in your chest.
Can your stepmother see it?
Your father is lucky, she tells you, her voice, of course, sweet and sticky. So lucky! That of all the possible suitors, he is the one I chose.
When she visits your father’s parents, she brings offerings, pastries and other delectables. They make a place for her at the table, but they won’t eat her food.
She knows your father still dreams of your mother.
My love, she says, holding a fork full of food up to his mouth.
Why is she feeding him as if he were a baby?
You want to call out to him: Don’t eat! Beware! But by then you are very far away, watching as if through a backwards telescope. He is shrinking and you are already banished from his kingdom. He can’t hear you.
You might be young, but you understand a few things about a twisted heart. Your mother was beautiful. Ten years younger than your father, she had dark wavy hair, like yours, and, like your sister, dark eyes that flashed with laughter or anger. She was a storm of a woman. She vibrated with life until she didn’t. One word for your mother? Passionate. A second word maybe? Difficult. Okay. You’ll admit it. She wasn’t perfect. They argued. A lot. But she was the love of his life. She was the love of your life. And now she is gone
Your stepmother has her own cosmology in which she has suffered at the hands of other men, her ex-husbands, her ex-boyfriends, all of whom have abused her, which is why she is not well. Your father is her savior.
Your father is her abuser. If he denies her anything, she says, I knew it. I knew it was too good to be true. I knew you were lying. I knew you never loved me.
She is a delicate flower. She cannot work. She is ill.
He can never leave her.
There he is in photographs with her and her children and her grandchildren—all over the walls in the house where you grew up.
It is as if your father has been airbrushed into your stepmother’s life and you have been airbrushed out of his.
What has been torn asunder cannot be repaired.
Your stepmother checks her makeup, her thinning hair, and then snaps closed the mirror of her compact: My daughter, she says to you. Your mother. Did you know she was unfaithful? I tell you this only so that you won’t blame your father.
Your mother’s absence has grown so large it fills the house and causes the windows to crack and the doors to swell. If only your stepmother had a huntsman! She would carve out your heart. She would leave it in the dark forest.
Instead, she puts words in the mouths of your aunts, poison in the mouths of ghosts. These words cast a pall over the land. They hollow you out, they whisper.
Her children, her grown sons, move into the house your father has built. They raise their fists against him.
My love, she says, when they blacken his eye, they have nowhere else to go. Would you ask me to deny my children?
If this were a grimmer fairytale, your stepmother would ask your brother to kneel before an open trunk, she would slam closed the lid, chop off his head, and cook a stew for your father. And then a bird would appear and sing to you and you would gather your brother’s bones and bury them beneath a juniper tree and then the bird would come again and it would sing of your stepmother’s wicked ways and of your many sorrows.
If only your mother would come to you in a dream! She would tell you that your father’s distance is only an illusion, a spell your stepmother has cast out of the well of her own needs.
The chains of guilt are sticky, she would say. Whatever guilt he feels about me, those are the threads she uses to bind him.
Tell him I am happy now, he must forgive himself, he must follow you into the forest.
Use breadcrumbs. Hurry! It is almost too late.
“13 Sorrows” is a true fiction. Beth Alvarado is the author of three books: a collection of essays, Anxious Attachments (forthcoming, Autumn House Press, 2019), Anthropologies: A Family Memoir, and Not a Matter of Love and other stories.