Bright Angels and Familiars
by Eugene England, Editor

Chapter 11
Windows on the Sea
Linda Sillitoe

[145] Strange that the world looked reassuringly the same although Lora Starkham would never look the same to the world. From the stocking-lined mask fitted over her face like a cat burglar, her gray-green eyes observed the traffic around the sunny atrium on the hospital’s seventh floor. She was newly grateful for her sight, for the fact that her eyes opened easily. She had been afraid for a time that her eyelids had melted, just as she knew the flesh over her cheekbones and chin had—we are, she observed wryly, clay after all.

Pleasant to sit in the sunlight and crochet with the big hook her seared hands could manage well. She idly watched the medical personnel and the patients in the halls, feeling invisible as only someone who is politely ignored can become. The visitors’ occasional second looks at her swathed head no longer stung. She didn’t blame them, considering herself the opposite of a blind uncle she had liked, whose emotions played on his face, visible to everyone but him. Besides, she was easily as relieved as the squeamish might be for the mask that postponed the day that her burned, refurbished face must meet air and eyes. Now she was between skin grafts, an [146] ideal oasis, given her condition. The pain was manageable, allowing a private mourning.

Since this was a Sunday, her family would drive the 120 miles from Cedar Springs to Salt Lake City for a visit this afternoon. She would hear Brad’s heavy heels crescendo down the hall, although Amy would probably appear first, Luci by the hand. Jake and Marcus would be quarreling without bitterness, ignored by Tim, who was used to it. Luci’s red hair would flame like a candle, Lora thought; she envisioned that and the baby’s face, bobbing over Brad’s shoulder when he turned. She wanted Amber’s arms around her neck, a longing tactile as hunger. Missing all of them ached at the core of her pain, yet visiting hours would leave her exhausted, worn by hugs. No kisses these days. No place to kiss.

Now noise of a different sort was approaching and Lora recognized it at once. The teenagers from the disturbed adolescents ward again, fierce in black leather, spiked and colored hair, dripping filthy language, calling each other remarkably hateful names with either venom or affection—hard sometimes to tell. As the clot of them rounded the corner of the atrium, Lora applied herself studiously to her crocheting. They appalled her. Their hostility and boisterousness reminded her why she and Brad had moved their family out of Salt Lake City before Amy began junior high school. Even in Cedar Springs, kids got into trouble, but there was not the drug traffic, the counter-culture, the preponderance of children who seemed to be raising themselves with only their fellow travelers in the streets and alleys for comfort.

“He-ey!” she heard one of them exclaim, as they caught sight of her on the couch, then some laughter before their voices and boot heels faded down the hall. Quiet again.

“I like it,” a voice said a minute later, not loudly, but Lora jumped and looked up. One of them, a girl with blue and orange hair above black-rimmed blue eyes had held back and was lounging, hip out, behind the couch opposite her.

“Excuse me?” Lora said finally.

“I said I like it. Your head gear.”

“Oh.” Thank you seemed the wrong response. What did she [147] mean, she liked it? She waited for the girl to go away.

“You think I could get one?”

“Well, I don’t know. Why would you want one?”

The girl sighed suddenly, came around the couch and sat down, thin knees apart in faded jeans. Her black jacket was slashed down one side and matched her short black boots. Lora watched her uneasily, but she seemed harmless, probably not that much older than her daughter Amy. For two months before Lora’s accident, Amy had seemed to spend most of her time in front of the bathroom mirror.

“Seriously,” the girl said now. “I would like a mask like that. Do you think you could get one for me?”

“I have no idea.” A pause. “Are you making fun of me?”

The girl leaped up as if she’d been slapped, whirled, then turned back, her mouth curling downward on one side. “Of course, I could just do what you did to get one. Bums, right?”

“I don’t recommend it. There must be an easier way.”

“Good.” The girl nodded formally, almost as if curtsying. “And thanks for not smiling.” Turning gracefully in her motorcycle gang garb, she hurried after her peers.

 

On Monday Lora wept describing her family’s visit, which had gone as usual—too short, too long, the tearing and relief when they left her there alone. Madeleine, the trauma therapist, softened her usual piercing gaze and laughed with Lora when she protested that she couldn’t weep properly yet, since her tear ducts didn’t work right. She was beginning to anticipate going home, sorting like so much laundry what her children’s reactions might be when she wore her strange, new face to PTA meetings, to church, to the park on family outings. The mask first; then the face itself.

”They’d never hate me,” she had told Madeleine before losing control, then noticed that Madeleine’s eyebrows, always sensitive to nuance, rose.

“What did I say?”

“You said they’d never hate you.”

“Oh, hurt me I mean. I meant to say they’d never hurt me.”

[147] Madeleine considered. “Hate me is what you said. Maybe you’re more deeply concerned than you like to admit.”

And that was when she’d started to sob, not at all like the mother she was, but heart-brokenly, as Luci had when her kitten ran into the street.

Lora felt better afterward, all cried out. “Sometimes,” she commented, as Madeleine glanced discreetly at the clock on the wall behind her, “I really want to wear this stocking mask forever.” That reminded her of the girl in the atrium on Sunday who wanted a mask also, so she told Madeleine about her encounter.

“A thin girl with blue eyes? About five feet tall?”

“Yes. Blue and orange hair.”

“The hair changes by the day, sometimes by the hour. She’s my client, too. Can you tell me what she said?”

Lora recalled for Madeleine how the girl had pressed her for a mask like her own, developed to apply light pressure to burned tissues and prevent excessive scarring. “A pretty weird request, isn’t it.”

Madeleine seemed lost in thought. “Maybe.” Her hands turned the papers on her desk, then she asked crisply, “Well, do you think you could get one for her?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Just a hunch. She isn’t doing well in therapy, and she’s very troubled. If this is something she wants, maybe it will lead somewhere.”

“But if you requested it from the staff,” Lora began.

“She asked you,” Madeleine said, the piercing look back again. “Maybe you can become a friend. She needs one.”

So do I, Lora thought, but not a disturbed alien from another planet, a prospect that weighted her steps back to her room where she fell immediately into a sound sleep.

 

The next afternoon in the atrium Lora gave Pril—that was her name—the soft stocking worn inside the mask next to the skin. Pril fondled it reverently, but her mouth was snarly. “Did you swipe it?”

“I asked for an extra so I could change it myself if I slopped a little food on it.” It had taken far more explanation than that, but [149] Lora didn’t elaborate.

Pril nodded. “You didn’t say what happened to you.”

Lora waved a hand resignedly. “We were up the canyon the week before the Fourth of July. My four-year-old, Luci, came back to where we were toasting marshmallows carrying some fireworks in her hands—Roman candles, giant firecrackers, I’ve never been sure. Brian and I both yelled at her to stay back, to put them down, but there wasn’t time even to slow her down, she was that excited. I felt frozen there by the fire, but I did grab them out of her hands and turned to throw them just as—”

“Pow!” Pril exclaimed.

“Exactly.” Lora folded her hands under the pink yarn on her lamp. They hurt and trembled. Pril was silent for perhaps three minutes.

“Sometime,” she said shyly, “maybe you could come to my room.” Lora was glad the mask hid her surprise and a little annoyance. “I’ll perform a meditation for Luci,” Pril added, then jumped as a black hand snaked down and flipped a long cigarette butt out of the ash tray. A boy, clad entirely in black except for a red band around his head, smacked his lips at Pril, ignoring Lora. “Hello, Slime-sleaze,” Pril said bitterly as he plopped his other broad hand on her small shoulder. She wound an arm around him, and they sauntered toward the elevator, the contraband cigarette entering his back pocket.

“Why Luci?” Lora asked Madeleine later, catching her at the nurse’s desk in the burn ward to tell her about Pril’s conversation. “Luci didn’t get hurt.”

“I don’t know. Maybe she thinks that Luci assumes blame for your injury or that you blame Luci.”

Lora shook her head. Even in her worst hours, she had been grateful that Luci was not the victim. That would have been infinitely harder to bear. “So strange,” Lora mused. “She said maybe I could come to her room and that she would perform a meditation for Luci.”

She looked up to find Madeleine staring at her. “She said you could come to her room?” Her tone sounded disbelieving.

[150] “Yes. But should I?”

Madeleine shook her head. “Lora, Pril’s room has been off limits to everyone, including the hospital staff. If anyone invades it she becomes almost catatonic. She has the only private room in that whole ward, possible because there are only three girls now and two of them room together. If she’ll allow you to go to her room, by all means go.”

Suddenly Lora wanted to go back to her own room and watch something bland and nonsensical on television with her roommate, who had the set on eighteen hours a day. “You make me feel like a spy.”

Madeleine took her arm and walked down the hall a few steps. “It’s deceptive,” she said, “when you see these kids roaming the halls. They’ve progressed enough to earn that privilege. But they are disturbed, all of them, certainly Pril. How can you be a spy if you help her in ways none of us have been able to so far?”

“Why me?”

“I’ve considered that,” Madeleine said. “Certainly she doesn’t warm up to me. Is it because you’re so naturally a mother? Or because she sees you as a victim, maybe a fellow victim? Or maybe it is something about your mask. She isn’t afraid of what she’ll read on your face.”

“Does her family visit?”

“We begin family group therapy at our evening session tomorrow night. Pril hasn’t been eager to see them. Most of our kids here aren’t. War at home, you know.” She patted Lora’s sleeve and hurried away. “Got a meeting.”

Wednesday evening Lora positioned herself outside the small auditorium where a sign announced a family therapy meeting. She took up her crocheting and prepared to scout out Pril’s parents. In her bag between the pastel yarns lay Pril’s invitation, penned neatly in schoolgirl cursive. “Please come to my room, Windows on the Sea, tomorrow promptly at 2 PM. My sincere best wishes, Pril.” Underneath in very small print between very small parentheses were the numbers 737.

“Why do you call your room, ‘Windows on the Sea’?” Lora [151] asked curiously when she read the invitation. “It’s very poetic …”

“You’ll see tomorrow,” Pril had said, the words clinging to the corners of her mouth like cigarettes.

What Lora wanted to see first were the parents of these junior gangsters, Pril’s in particular. They arrived in ones and twos, the black boy’s parents easy to pick out, then the look-alike mother of a blond, heavy girl who always wore a red leather mini. Lora’s heart went out to the mother, who looked both respectable and terrified—and very alone. Divorced? Lora wondered. Busy husband? Never married? What could keep a father away from a counseling session when his teenage daughter was hospitalized? Three other couples, one appearing to be a mother and grandfather, entered the auditorium before Lora saw Pril’s parents coming and knew at once who they were. The features that on Pril were soft and pixyish—the cherubic mouth, despite its snarl, the upturned nose and eyeswere, on her father, boyish. A cute man, Lora decided; he looked accustomed to loving care and approval, she thought; maybe his mouth seemed a bit spoiled. Pril’s mother was a large woman with a dark brown pageboy, apprehensive dark eyes, and a determined chin. Watching her, Lora could feel her worry and had a swift impression that these people were still shocked at the transformation of their sweet, smart daughter.

Pril’s parents appeared to be the last couple, and as they approached the auditorium door, the patients filed past Lora and into the auditorium from the opposite direction without a glance to left or right. Lora saw Pril coming at the end of the line and gasped. The whole row of them looked armed for battle, leather, dye, and boots all in place, but Pril had somehow stuffed or shaped the stocking mask she obtained from Lora to resemble a helmet. Then as Pril smartly turned toward the door, Lora saw where today’s paint job had gone. Thick red streamed down the bare backs of her legs, pooling slightly at her shoe tops. Lora’s eyes flew to Pril’s parents, staring aghast as Pril marched past Lora’s line of vision. “Oh my—goodness!” her father breathed, looking to his wife for support. But she was following their daughter, both hands whisking aside tears.

Lora crocheted for some time after the auditorium doors closed, [152] thinking over what she had seen. She felt sick, vulnerable. What children couldn’t do to you! Had they no sense of how vulnerable a parent’s love is? She imagined the yelling, the stony silence, the defiance or tears, storming behind those doors and had no desire to be in the lobby when the group dispersed. A little shakily she gathered her yarn and pattern and put them in her bag beside Pril’s ladylike invitation. Tomorrow. Weary, she crept back to her room thinking that Amy was already fourteen—and Amy’s mother was scarred for life.

 

During that first visit to Windows on the Sea, Lora was thankful she had brought her bag of handwork with her. She stood outside Room 737 for a few minutes contemplating the ceramic sign below the room number, deciding that Pril had created the graceful nomenclature in a craft class. The sign was pale azure with lettering carefully applied in dark pink, deftly outlined in vermillion. Nervously Lora lifted her hand and knocked. The door opened.

The room Lora entered was all white—white walls, white ceiling, white tile floor, two white bunks built into the walls. The pillows and sheets were white, and a small, high window caught the pale summer sunlight and threw it back into Lora’s eyes. Pril motioned her to sit down on one bunk, then tiptoed to the far corner of the room and performed a pirouette. Lora sat, her eyes on the apparition in front of her. Pril wore no makeup. Her skin was clean and light pink, her brows and lashes barely visible, soft blond like her hair. She wore a light pink leotard, tights, and ballet shoes. Altogether she was a vision. Lora was speechless, but Pril didn’t seem to mind. She hummed as she curled into the corner of the other cot and smiled.

Finally Lora reached into her bag and took out her crocheting, an afghan that was almost finished. “You know,” she began, hoping her voice sounded conversational, “you look awfully nice like that. ”

Pril’s eyebrows raised slightly in amusement? scorn? appreciation?

“I’ve wondered—is Pril short for April?”

Now Pril uncurled like a cat and twirled away from the cot [153] singing (to the tune of “Frere Jacques”), “Princess Prilla, Princess Prilla, Here’s your prince. Here’s your prince. Prilla is my sweetheart, Prilla is my sweetheart, I’m her prince, I’m her prince.”

She ended poised like a doll on a jewelry box. Lora applauded lightly then added, “Oh, Prilla. What a pretty name.”

Pril sighed and sat down. A silence followed.

“Pril, what do you do with your time when you’re not in therapy or a workshop?”

”Time for you and time for me,” Pril said softly, “And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.”

She wandered restlessly for a minute while Lora tried to place that bit of poetry and wondered what it meant to Pril. She had studied it at some point, she knew, but for Pril it seemed precocious.

“Is that Eliot?” she asked finally. Her college poetry class had been a long time back.

Pril smiled then frowned. “Do I dare disturb the universe? In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”

“I remember that one,” Lora said. “At least I think I do. Isn’t it Eliot’s poem about the cat, the fog? What’s the name? The line that’s stayed with me is, ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Except for me, I suppose it would be baby spoons.”

Pril was pacing now, a little agitated. “And I have known the eyes already, known them all …,” she added, spinning toward Lora accusingly. “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.”

The next words popped into Lora’s brain and she said them quickly. “And when I am formulated?”

“Sprawling on a pin! When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, then how should I begin to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways!”

“Pril,” Lora said, rising, “Pril, don’t cry. ” But Pril spun past her to the window and stood staring out.

Lora took up her crochet hook again and waited. As minutes passed it occurred to her that Pril had not said so much as a sentence of her own. Everything had been verse. After a while she said, “Pril, [154] tell me. Are you upset about the family therapy session last night? I imagine that might be pretty tough.”

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws,” Pril told the window pane, “scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

“She was like a chrysalis,” Lora reported to Madeleine late that afternoon, “pink, newly formed, graceful. She spoke poetry, she danced, she almost cried. She’s a beautiful girl, not a hoodlum.”

Madeleine listened, clearly impressed. She shook her head. “Poor Pril,” she said. “She’s like a stone in here—and how did you like her getup last night? You know, now that I think of it, she may have quoted something from that same poem to me once. Which one is it?”

“I looked it up in the big literature book I had Brad bring from home. ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.”’

Madeleine turned to the marker, leafed through the poem and nodded. “Yes, here it is.” She looked up, her eyes amused. “Last week when we finished what I thought was an unusually probing conversation—at least I thought we got somewhere—Pril flounced to the door, turned, and said, ‘That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all.'”

They both laughed. “But what is it?” Lora asked. “I saw her parents. They aren’t monsters. What’s upsetting her so horribly? She’s not crazy?”

A shadow crossed Madeleine’s eyes then, and she drew back a little. “She’s not responding to therapy. She’s protecting someone, maybe her whole family. Her being freaky may be the only way for those she loves to survive, or so it seems to her subconsciously.”

“But—” Lora began.

Madeleine shook her head and picked up Lora’s chart. “So you have skin grafts Monday and then, in a few days, you’ll be out of here. We’d better have you ready for that homecoming.”

“Yes,” Lora said. “I’m trying to get ready.”

That night Lora dreamed she was at church with her family. The children were seated all down the pew with Brad at the other end, holding Amber. But no, they weren’t all there. Amy was up in front with two other girls her age, who were warbling a hymn. But Amy [155] was belting that song Cindy Lauper had made popular, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Her lank hair had been wound into fancy coils and braids, her glasses hung on a black chain around her neck, her skinny little waist showed between a halter top and shorts that looked so small that even in her dream Lora believed they must be Luci’s. Suddenly Lora realized that Luci and the other children were smiling at Amy, cheering her on, to the horror of the other parishioners. “Children!” she whispered, but they turned their faces steadfastly away from her, refused to see, refused to hear. Knowing she was the cause of this uproar, she awoke shivering in her hospital bed.

Lora visited Windows on the Sea again, but this time she did not try so hard to engage Pril in conversation. Lora had a new project, a white quilt top she was edging in blue, this time with a smaller hook—more difficult to wield. Their next-door neighbor’s daughter was expecting a baby soon, and Lora wanted to give this former babysitter an unusual and personal gift. Pril seemed at ease, stretching quietly on the other cot, then polishing her nails with clear polish, then simply staring at the ceiling. “I’m going to miss you Pril,” she said finally. “Sometime next week, after my skin graft, I’m going home. Will you write?”

Pril said nothing but stood and stared out the window.

Lora began to gather her things. It would soon be time for dinner and she was hungry. “You’ll probably go home before too long,” she suggested.

“Pril-la come and dance with me,” she heard then and straightened to see Pril curtsey to an imaginary partner. “Both my hands I offer thee.” Her hands extended, eyes glazed, Pril was facing but not seeing Lora. Her next gesture was sexual, almost obscene. “Right boob first, left one then; Daddy’s girl comes home again.”

Pril was still crouched in a bow as Lora, trembling, let herself out the door. Tomorrow, Sunday, she would see her family; the next day, surgery. She walked to the nurse’s desk and asked if they would page Madeleine to see if she happened to be anywhere in the hospital. She was.

“Incest!” Lora announced to Madeleine. “That’s what it is!”

Madeleine shrugged. “Likely. And she has a younger sister to [156] protect, with two brothers in between.” “I’ve been sitting here putting things together and I’m furious. You really think that’s what it is, why Pril’s …?”

“Incest is more common than you think,” Madeleine said. “Nobody’s admitting it yet, and maybe it’s never been fully expressed, but I’m meeting with Pril’s parents separately this week.”

“But I’m going home next week,” Lora said numbly.

“And you have your own problems,” Madeleine said. “You have to keep Pril in perspective.”

“Thanks Doc,” Lora said and sank back on to the pillows. She doubted she would sleep.

 

“So, when do you check out?” Pril drawled out of the corner of her mouth, dropping down on the sofa opposite Lora, who was waiting for her family.

“It depends on how the skin grafts go tomorrow. Will you write to me?”

Pril shrugged and flipped a booted ankle up on one knee. “I’m not much with words.”

Lora almost laughed. “I think you do all right.”

Pril scowled. “Can you keep your mask?”

“For a while. I don’t know how much longer.”

Pril blew upward at the bangs on her forehead and sighed. “So I guess you just can’t wait to get home, right?”

“Yes and no. In some ways it will be hard.”

The scowl stayed, but Pril began nodding slightly. “Yeah. Me too. Like, I know my dad needs me.”

“Mmmm,” Lora agreed carefully. “And your mom?”

“My mother was always fighting for me,” Pril growled, getting up abruptly.

“Good for her.”

Pril wheeled. “What? You fight with your kids?”

Lora took a deep breath and tried to sound as level as Madeleine would. “That’s not what you said, Pril. You said, ‘My mother was always fighting for me.’ And I saw your mother. I think that’s probably true.”

[157] Pril arched like an offended cat. “So screw you, Lora. Mothers always stick together, right?” She flounced away.

Lora’s family came and went, then the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, Madeleine, and in the morning all of them again. Time drifted, and she with it, in and out of mists and dreams, familiar now from the weeks after her accident and the surgeries that followed. Once or twice she thought Pril drifted through the mist, but words were bright kites with hairlike strings; she could seldom catch one and pull it in before it blew past her.

Wednesday came sharp and clear. Lora showered, ate, talked with the surgeon and Madeleine, walked twice through the halls, then returned and reached for her tote bag. She sorted through it twice before she realized that the white quilt top, now halfway edged with blue, simply wasn’t there.

Of course, she knew at once where it had gone. She hurried down the hall toward the disturbed adolescent ward, anger quickening her steps. The anger felt good, a righteous indignation toward all the wrongs of children toward parents, the careless pranks and thoughtless acts that betrayed in an instant years of devotion. Rounding the corner she paused at the drinking fountain, fingers shielding the edges of her mask. She reminded herself as she drank the icy water until her teeth ached that she should not, could not, let what might be her parting incident with Pril be a sour one. She must find some way to let her know that stealing her work was unacceptable but that she was still accepted. Maybe, she thought, her anger lightening, she could find out why Pril did it.

She stood outside the door, admired the ceramic sign again, then tapped lightly.

“Pril, it’s Lora.”

Cautiously Lora opened the door slightly, then more. She could see Pril’s bare leg and foot prone and pale on her cot. Her heart leaped, and she shoved the door open wide, bursting into the room in one motion. But Pril was only asleep, sound asleep, and nude. Draped across her, one corner tucked under her chin, the other in her crotch like a diaper, was Lora’s quilt-top, except that now it was lurid with color, defaced as Pril often defaced her body, her hair.

[158] Why? Lora wondered, outraged on behalf of the blue crocheted edging that had been so difficult to accomplish with the small hook and her injured hands. “Pril!” She stepped closer.

Pril was breathing as steadily as a baby. Close up, Lora could see words on the fabric, colored in Pril’s neat cursive. Tipping her head, she could read a few. “Always Fighting For Me.” So she had taken that sentence Lora had challenged her on back to her room. This sentence didn’t rhyme or chime except—maybe—with truth. Beneath it Pril slept like a soldier wrapped in her flag. Markers littered the foot of the bed.

Lora looked up and away as her eyes burned with the tears that still couldn’t quite flow. Outside Pril’s small window, the sky was a flaming glory, and Lora stood on her toes, knees pressed against the cot for a better look. Purple and gold streaks soared above an improbable peach glow at the horizon. As she watched, the lower rims of the high mauve clouds singed like brimstone, then billow after billow caught and flared. Minutes passed before she realized that the igniting rays flashed upward from the salty lake, a thin, silver streak she hadn’t noticed before at this distance. Pril’s slight snoring underscored Lora’s breaths that drew in color and light, spilling all her eyes couldn’t absorb like a blessing on the girl beside her. What if I had lost my sight, she thought, and missed this?

How many evenings, she wondered, had Pril knelt on her bed to watch this long embrace of sun and lake? Often enough to name her room Windows on the Sea; frequently enough to sanctify this cell that beamed scarlet from its vacant walls to poetry and motion. Enough to let the girl within the scaly armor emerge and shine.

Lora considered the quilt-top again. Finally she selected a blue marker from the foot of the bed. She stooped beside the free corner of the quilt. “For Pril,” she printed neatly, “with love, because we’re both finding our way home.”