This is Izzy’s first professional sale.
“While writing this story, I was thinking a lot about how many of the worst things we do to one another are done out of a desire to protect and keep safe, and how little surety we have that change will bring about improvement.”
The Good Mothers’ Home for Wayward Girls
by Izzy Wasserstein
One of the Mothers shoves the new girl into the dorm room, the slick threads of the Mother’s grasp lingering long enough that several of us shiver. The new girl wears a short dress, shot through with sunset, though we are not sure we remember sunsets properly. The hem of the dress is ragged and mud-caked. It is the most beautiful thing we have ever seen. We hate the new girl.
Get her into uniform, the Mother commands. It makes no sound, but its words echo between our ears. The new girl has been standing with her hands on opposite shoulders, her chin jutting forward. That changes when we surround her. We rip the dress from her shoulders and toss a gray shift over her body. Now she is dressed just as we are.
The Mother squelches out of the room, and the door slams shut behind it.
The new girl is skinny, Kate says. Kate hates the new girl more than the rest of us, and is far more relieved that she has arrived.
Too skinny, Miranda agrees. You think you’re pretty, new girl? Miranda has been at the Good Mothers’ Home the longest of any of us. She has not been the new girl in a very long time, but she is not inclined to mercy.
My name is Bel, the new girl says.
No one cares, new girl. Kate shoves her. The new girl stumbles back, then raises her fists. There is something in her eyes we recognize. Not all new girls have it. Kate, who was the new girl for a long time, did not have it. Kate is caught, now, picking a fight with someone who will not cower like she once did.
Say that again, the new girl demands. Kate hesitates.
The great clock in the hallway strikes NIGHT. A Mother outside the door forces a word in our heads: Bed. We scramble into our bunks. The gas lamps flicker and die. The new girl does not move.
Bed. The voice in our heads is louder the second time. It feels like a rat scratching behind our eyes.
Get in bed, new girl, we shout, and Jaq cracks her knuckles. The new girl gets into bed, and the Mother’s pressure in our minds fades.
Kate says: If you get us in trouble, new girl, you’ll pay. We’ll make you pay. Kate has scars down her back that were not there when she arrived.
When she thinks the rest of us are asleep, Molly tiptoes over to the new girl’s bed. Welcome to The Home, new girl, she says. The new girl does not respond. We fall asleep wondering if we hear scratching and scraping noises outside.
In the morning–that is, when the gas lamps ignite–the new girl’s dress, which we left on the floor, is gone. We shuffle down to the bathroom. No one bothers to tell the new girl what is happening. She doesn’t ask. Kate hangs back and stage-whispers: You’re not going to survive, new girl. The Mothers will punish you or you’ll slit your wrists. Kate is brave because there are Mothers watching us, one in the doorway to the kitchen, one clinging to the ceiling, leaving a puddle of ichor on the moldy tile of the hall. We will need to clean up that mess later.
No. We will make the new girl do it.
A Mother oversees us in the bathroom, its undulating form sliding like a misplaced shadow out of the corner. We do not understand the Mothers, but we know some things they hate, like fights and uncleanliness. This means Kate cannot hurt the new girl the way she would like (we can feel the ache coming off her like heat from the ruin of her back). But she can still use words. Skinny, she says. Look at those ribs. We join in, because we hate the new girl. The new girl does not cry, though her face reddens. We remember that she did not scream when the Mother touched her.
We leave the bathroom. The great clock reads DAY, but the light that spills in from the windows high above us does not look like what we remember of daylight. We doubt Miranda remembers daylight at all. Now we mark time like this: when the clock strikes NIGHT, we hide in our dorm until DAY returns and the lamps ignite. Some of us remember a girl who snuck out at night. We cannot forget her screams.
We eat breakfast at the long table in the dining hall. The porridge is slightly bitter, which Jaq prefers to bland, but Molly retches at the taste. When the new girl goes to take a bite, Kate knocks her bowl away. There are no Mothers watching, no one to punish her.
The new girl stands up. She is shorter than Kate and lighter, but even Jaq tenses. Kate’s eye widen but she does not stand.
Let’s settle this, the new girl says. We don’t know where the fierceness in her comes from. Were we ever like that? we wonder, and then hate her more for making us ask.
Kate looks down at the chipped tabletop. The new girl grabs her porridge and sits down.
After breakfast, we do our chores. Chores build character, the Mothers remind us often. We will refine you. We scrub floors that never come clean, whitewash peeling wallpaper, prune the gray-leafed trees in the enclosed garden. Over time, we have cleaned the whole of the Home, the dorm room, the dining hall, the kitchen, the bathroom. There is so much to clean. Miranda thinks there used to be many more Wayward Girls, because there are so many empty bunks, so much empty space. But we cannot be sure.
You’re cleaning up after the Mothers, new girl, Miranda says.
I am not, says the new girl. She plants her feet and crosses her arms.
Do it, Kate says, or we’ll hurt you.
Shut up, Kate, Miranda says. New girl, clean it or we’ll make sure it costs you. Show her your back, Kate.
Kate cringes. Her shoulders hunch. I don’t want to, she says.
Do it now, Miranda says.
Kate’s gaze is a well of bitterness. She turns and lifts the rough fabric over her head. The new girl looks.
The Mothers will do worse than that, Molly says. She was not the new girl for long, and still has some sympathy left. The new girl stands very still. Then she grabs a pail and sets to work.
On her second night, the new girl takes a piece of broken glass and makes two scratches on the wall above her bed. We loudly take bets on how long she will keep that up.
That night we are almost sure we hear a snuffling outside the walls of The Home.
The new girl has made many, many scratches by the morning of the fight. Kate has stopped trying to fight the new girl, because Kate is a coward. That is why we hated her for so long, we tell ourselves. Only Molly doesn’t hate Kate, because Kate became the new girl so soon after Molly.
Kate does not want to fight the new girl, but she wants her to bleed. The new girl talks about feeling the wind blow across her arms, and about the tang of sourdough between her lips. She talks about the smell of the sea, the feeling of gravel between her toes. Kate hates her, and grows clever in her desire to hurt. She waits for Jaq to have a bad day. And Jaq does when a Mother spreads its ichor all over the garden and makes Jaq clean it.
We never know why the Mothers do what they do. Miranda once told us that, long ago, a girl asked, and a Mother said For your protection, sweet thing, and wrapped its appendages around the girl. After that, the girl didn’t ask any more questions. She just stood, slack-mouthed, drooling.
This time the Mother makes Jaq clean the garden for so long she is late for dinner, rushing to fill her plate before it is too late, before we are shepherded to the dorm, before the clock strikes NIGHT.
Kate waits until Jaq is walking to the table with her tray, then shoves the new girl backwards off the bench and into Jaq. The porridge spills everywhere. The new girl struggles to her feet and turns to Kate, eyes burning with hate. But Jaq stands almost as fast and she tackles the new girl.
They scramble on the floor. The new girl is clever and vicious. She jabs her thumbs at Jaq’s eyes, bites and claws. But Jaq is much stronger, and thinks she used to be a fighter, before the Mothers took her in. And she is covered in ichor.
Jaq has so much rage. It is frightening to watch. Even Kate looks away.
We see the Mother coming, but Jaq does not hear our hissed warnings.
Enough, the mother says. The word rattles our skulls in its fury. Jaq freezes and stands up. The ichor that pools beneath her is streaked with blood. Jaq shakes. The Mother will discipline her, perhaps take her away forever. It has happened before.
Look at this mess, the mother says. Kate bursts into sobs.
Somehow, the new girl is on her feet. She braces herself against the table. She is bleeding from her lip, from her nose, from a dozen cuts. Her eye is already swelling.
Tell me, the Mother orders.
Tell you what? the new girl asks. Molly gasps.
Tell me what she has done, the Mother says, and its oily appendage taps Jaq on the forehead, leaving a further smear on her brow. Jaq cowers.
We fell, the new girl says. It’s nothing.
We stare at her, our mouths hanging open.
Do not lie to me, girl, the Mother says. It is unbecoming. It draws the last word out until it echoes between our ears. Molly claws at the skin on her arms.
It was an accident, the new girl says.
The Mother slides very close to her. It reeks of honey and rotted meat. The new girl is shaking. The new girl does not look away. You must both be corrected, the Mother says.
Two days later, a Mother shoves Bel and Jaq back into the dorm. Bel’s wounds have not healed. The two girls are holding hands. They remind us of ships that have broken against a reef. They do not meet our eyes. We are very quiet.
The clock strikes. The lights burn out. In the darkness, we hear Jaq climb into Bel’s bed. In moments, they are asleep in one another’s arms.
In the morning, Bel asks how long it has been. When we tell her, she makes the marks on the wall above her head. Afterwards, she stares at the shard of glass for a long time. Jaq stares at her.
That night we are listening for the clock when Bel, perched on the end of her bunk, says, Why do we do what they say?
Shut up, new girl, Kate says.
You shut up, Jaq says, and Kate flinches.
Because they will hurt us, Miranda says.
Or kill us, Molly says.
Because of the things outside, Jaq says, very softly. Everyone goes quiet, but it is not yet NIGHT, and there are no sounds beyond the walls.
Death would be better than this, Bel says.
Would it? Miranda asks.
The clock rings. The lights go out. I think we’re already dead, Kate says.
I’ve seen bodies, Miranda says. We can die.
Thank god, Bel says.
Outside we think we hear a scraping. It may be the wind in the trees. We listen for a long time.
If I have to die, I want to die on my feet, Jaq says. I would like that. Her words are an appeal to Bel. There is no answer.
Kate cries in her bed. We don’t know if it is because she is afraid of death, or the Mothers, or because Bel is no longer the new girl. Molly slips to her bed and whispers in her ear.
Get away, Kate hisses. I don’t want your help. Molly slinks back to her bed. She is the kindest of us, but that does not mean she did not leave scars.
The showerheads are spitting out brown water with the fetid odor of a swamp. We stand outside the spray, dejected. Miranda is the most dejected, because we have been trading days on ichor duty, and yesterday was hers.
Good girls must shower, says a Mother.
It’s broken, Kate says, then claps her hands over her mouth.
The Mother slurps across the scummy tile. What did you say?
It’s broken, Bel says. We all stare, wondering why she has stepped forward for Kate, who she hates, and wondering if she means to die now.
It’s broken and we can’t use it, Bel says.
Girls must shower, the Mother says. When you were wayward, you did not shower and you were unclean.
The water isn’t clean, Jaq says. She steps up beside Bel. We know she will not survive without Bel.
There is a roar behind our eyes. We all stagger. Molly falls to the wet floor, clutching her face. You will be reformed. Or you will suffer.
Bel balls her hands into fists. You horror, she says. We won’t shower. We won’t be your good girls.
The pressure in our heads builds. Our heads feel like gas-filled corpses ready to burst. One by one, we collapse. When we are lying on the ground, bleeding from our ears, clutching our knees to our chins, the Mother speaks.
Then you are not worthy of our protection. The pressure breaks. We blink and slowly uncurl ourselves. The Mother is gone, its ichor mixing with the water, sluicing down the drain.
Where did it go? Bel asks, as though this a trick she has not seen. None of us have seen it.
Molly? Kate asks. We turn. Molly’s open eyes stare at the ceiling.
I told you, Miranda says very quietly, and we feel something break in her.
After a long silence, Kate insists we bury her.
That’s what you do, she says. That’s what people do when their friends die. I remember that.
We look at each other uneasily. We don’t say: you weren’t friends. We don’t say anything.
We see no Mothers as we take Molly’s body to the garden. The house is silent, save for the wind, the scraping of trees against the walls. The ground is hard. We dig with our hands, with spoons from the kitchen, with bits of stone. There are many roots and many rocks.
Do you think they are really gone? Jaq asks.
It’s a trick, Kate says.
They’ve never gone away before, Miranda says, in the small voice.
Good riddance, Bel says.
No one is protecting us, Miranda says. No one will protect us.
From what? Bel asks. But she knows. We all know: the things beyond the walls, the ones that make the noises.
We have only dug a couple feet deep when the clock rings. The lights die. We stumble through the building, clutching each other, moving as fast as we can. The fact that we are not in complete darkness suggests that perhaps somewhere, behind many clouds, is a sliver of moon.
We find the door to the dorm. It creaks open, echoing down the hallway. We slip inside. No one goes to their bunk alone. Kate curls up with Miranda. We have an even number now.
The chuffing wakes us in the middle of the night. We listen, each of us clutching the hands of another. There are heavy breaths and snorts and sounds like forks being scraped across empty plates. The thing on the outside walks back and forth across the base of the wall, and we do not sleep.
The sounds only stop when the lamps ignite. We listen for a long time, though it is DAY. Then Miranda cautiously opens the door. There is nothing in the hall, no Mothers, nothing from outside.
We go to the kitchen and slip behind the counter. We find a thick door. The door turns with a great handle, like a bank vault. This is where they keep the food, Jaq says.
We’ll starve, Kate says, but with effort we pull the door open, and inside is porridge, great drums of it stacked high. We pry one open, eat it in silence, then go outside and dig again. We make little progress.
You’ve killed us, Miranda says. It will find a way in, soon. The Mothers kept it out.
You don’t know that, Bel says.
You think the Mothers are the worst thing we can fear, Miranda says. They were our protectors.
We could beg them to come back, Kate said. They might be listening.
Never, Bel says.
You just want to die, Kate says. We try not to look at Molly’s body. You don’t care if you die.
The walls are high, Jaq says. We can live here. Together. She is looking at Bel intently. Don’t die, her eyes say.
This isn’t living, Bel says. For a long time there is only the sound of us digging and the sniffles as Jaq wipes at tears we pretend not to see.
When we are three feet deep, we hit rock, and so we bury Molly there, among the shallow roots and stone.
She was kind, Jaq whispers.
Too kind, Miranda says.
Not kind enough, Kate says.
We should mark her grave, Miranda says. We plant three sticks in the ground by her head. It is the best we can do.
We are back in the dorm room when the clock strikes NIGHT.
The thing outside doesn’t wait. It sniffs. It grunts. It claws at the ground and at the walls. The sounds of its claws are like glass shattering.
It stops. We do not dare to breathe.
A huff, and the glass-breaking sound is far up the outside wall. We scramble from our beds. We hear it leap again, hear the impact even higher, close to the windows far above us. It has our scent. We rush from the room. Behind us, we hear the shattering of the windows, or maybe claws against concrete. It roars. The sound fills The Home like the Mothers’ words filled our minds.
We run. The kitchen, Miranda says.
The door to the dorm bursts open.
We rush through the kitchen, Jaq leading the way. The porridge, she gasps.
The roars of the thing echo. The shattering sounds are close behind us.
Jaq spins the handle. We pull at the door. Something loud cracks behind us.
The door slides open.
Go, Miranda says. Hu–
A splatter of something wet and warm catches us. Miranda gurgles once, and falls to the ground. The thing behind her is a dark geometry, a series of sharp angles, with limbs like sabers.
It bends down to feed.
We get past the door, slam it behind us. We hear the crunching from outside. The door is thick, but does not block out enough of the sound. Eventually, we hear cracking and slurping, a sound like a dog worrying at a bone.
Then the claws rake at the door. We clutch our heads and try not to think of Miranda, nor Molly. We sit shaking, curled amongst one another. The thing from outside does not grow tired. It does not stop seeking entrance.
But then the sounds stop suddenly. We hope day has arrived, but we are afraid it may be a trick. We listen for a long time. No one speaks. The door creaks open, and we flinch, but Kate has opened it. Light spills in. There is nothing waiting for us but a smear of blood.
We have to call the Mothers back, Kate says. We have to beg them.
Do you think they will come back? says Jaq.
We have to try, Kate says.
We have to leave, Bel says.
We stare at her. Leave? Jaq says. Go outside? Where that thing is?
That thing is in here now, too, Bel says.
Why are you always trying to die? Jaq demands.
Bel scratches at her arm. Once, she says, back when I could wander, I found a stream, and the bank was thick with mulberries. I ate until my mouth and hands were stained purple. I ate until I was nearly sick, then slept in the sun.
Don’t torture us, Kate says. Please.
I can’t remember what they tasted like, Bel says.
It’s better to forget, Jaq says. Easier.
I don’t want to forget. Not ever, Bel says.
When you die, you forget everything, Jaq says.
The silence stretches. Bel reaches into the open drum and scoops out handfuls of porridge. She eats hurriedly.
I’m leaving, she says. Climbing the garden wall and leaving. Please don’t make me go alone.
We think Bel is right, that she may be right. We will go with Bel. We think we will go with her.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a New York City based actress of stage, screen, and of course, the audio booth. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started. Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Ellen Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on-camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
About the Artist
Geneva is a self-taught illustrator from North Carolina, who loves working with colors, big hair, and drawing whimsy with a touch of realism and happiness. Her work has appeared in magazines, novels, editorial and advertising campaigns.