First of all, I’m sorry. You deserve an explanation and I’m going to give you one. A mother’s love knows no bounds, dear, and I’ve always done what I thought was best for you.
Last night, when I came over, I saw a framed photograph sitting on your coffee table. I’m not sure how you got a copy, but I recognized it at once. It was taken twenty years ago, the summer you turned nine. Your father’s got you on his shoulders, and I’m standing next to him, looking up at you. We’re in the field next to the house – the big willow and old Mr. Yates’s barn in the distant background, the sky so blue it looks unreal. The sun is glinting off your hair, and your father is laughing and we look so happy – so normal and so very happy. And it was a lie, Sarah.
You know that, don’t you? Photographs can lie.
That was the summer I decided to murder your father.
Do you remember what it was like then? Afterwards, we never talked about it. But you were such a perceptive child. You’d find the bruise, the laceration, the crimson halo of a cigarette burn, then put a gentle finger on the injury and offer to kiss it better. You thought it was normal. You told me once, “Mommies get hurt easily.”
And yes, I tried to leave. Three times, actually. When he found me the third time, I thought he’d kill me. He said he would, before he put his hands on my throat and squeezed. I’m not sure why he didn’t go through with it, but I figured there wouldn’t be a fourth escape. And I decided, all right then, till death do us part, if that’s the way you want it.
I wasn’t a fool. I knew murderers usually get caught.
At first, I figured the best way would be to engineer a sort of accident. He was always working on that rusty old Dodge. Perhaps I could wait until he went underneath it and then release the jack, let the car fall on him. But it might not kill him and what would I do then?
I took my time trying to decide. I read dozens of novels – mysteries – to get ideas. They were full of exotic ideas, but where would someone like me, an ordinary woman from a small town find plastique, or anthrax, or a hit man? For a while, I was stumped.
Still, just knowing I would do it, one way or another, was a comfort. It warmed me in a way I can’t explain. I started to fantasize about what he would look like dead. His face yellow and waxy. His sunken eyes. The mouth open and slack. When I was doing chores, I was daydreaming about murder. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror one day and realised there was a sparkle to my eyes that I hadn’t seen for years. I looked like a woman in love.
The answer came, strangely enough, from an uncle of mine, a Botany professor. I hadn’t seen him for five years or more, but he was passing through town on his way to a conference and he dropped in for a visit. We drank tea in the front room, and then I showed him around the farm. He spotted a little patch of wildflowers and studied them with great interest. “Watch your little girl around these!” he exclaimed. “Toxicoscordion venenosum! Also known as Meadow Death Camus.”
They were incredibly poisonous, he said. I thought they were beautiful, with their sweetly pointed creamy petals. I assured him you didn’t eat wild plants, didn’t even want to eat the store bought ones, and that you were in no danger.
Later, I went to the library, and looked them up. They were deadly all right. And here’s the best part…their poison breaks down too quickly to appear on a tox screen. The victim appears to have died from natural causes. Meadow Death Camus was virtually untraceable.
So, a week or so later, on an unseasonably cool August afternoon, I sent you out to play, and prepared your father’s favourite beef stew, with lots of onions, and just the right amount of toxicoscordion venenosum. No danger that you would eat it – you hated onions. But your father, he could have second and third helpings if he pleased.
I was as calm about it as I’ve ever been about anything in my life. I just sat in the kitchen, watching the door, waiting for your father to get home. I was all ready to give him a smile. “You must be hungry,” I’d say. “Here, take a bowl. Want some toast to go with it?”
But life’s funny sometimes, because your father never came. Instead, it was Officer Bill Dean, looking stricken and pale, come to break the news that there’d been a bad accident. A long haul trucker had fallen asleep at the wheel out on Highway 4, and crossed the line, and hit your father’s old Dodge head on. And I bawled my eyes out on Officer Bill’s shoulder, not from grief, as he thought, but from the frustration of having my one chance at payback snatched out from under me.
It seemed so unsatisfying. So unfair.
But there was no time for self-pity. There was a funeral to plan, and you to look after. Thank goodness your father had taken out an insurance policy. It wasn’t much, but it kept us afloat for a few months until I could find work.
You grew up into the lovely woman you are now. And then you met Wes. I really liked him. Such a smart fellow. And so well mannered. A lawyer, with fine suits and a big house. Nothing like your father, I thought.
But things weren’t all right, were they? It took a while for me to catch on to what he was doing. He didn’t use his fists, or the lit end of a cigarette. He just used words. At first little put-downs, then long condescending lectures, and then insults and abuse and jealous rages. I couldn’t believe you put up with it. But what did I expect? You’d spent your childhood watching me get trampled by a man.
I couldn’t tell you what to do. All I could do was to be there for you when you were ready to leave. When you decided the time was right.
But, Sarah, I found out there’s no time left, not for me. Doctor Bradwell was very kind about it, but he’s an honest man. Three to six months, he said. Right now I still feel strong, but for how much longer, no one can say.
So there’s only one way I can think of to help you out. I know Wes often takes lunch at his desk, so I stopped by around lunchtime. Brought him a bowl of homemade stew, made with some things from my garden — vegetables and herbs, and a very special kind of wildflower. We sat and talked, and I watched him eat every last mouthful.
By the time you get this letter, it will all be over. He won’t hurt you any more.
No need to thank me, dear. As I said, before, a mother’s love knows no bounds.
Catherine McKenzie’s writing has appeared in Mothering Magazine, Pathways, and on Quick Brown Fox. After completing this story, she discovered she has belladonna growing in her garden.