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Father never told me why he made Mother sew her lips shut. He did it before I was born, and I had to find out his reasons for myself.
Of course I asked him. I had endless questions, as if I spoke double to make up for Mother’s forced silence. Often I bombarded him as he boarded a rented coach from town to take him away on business.
He would smile, and say things like, “Dear Priscilla, your mother is a banshee. She’ll wail across the moors and frighten poor townsfolk to death if we unseal her lips.”
“But Father, there are no moors here.”
“She’ll find some.” He’d then shut the coach door, and the coachman and his horses would carry Father away from my questions.
While he was gone, I would turn my questions to Mother. She taught me to sign at an early age so that she could speak to me by hand, but often we sat for hours in the sewing room, not speaking one way or another. We’d mend old clothes from seemingly bottomless wooden chests, or stitch patterns into cloth over our embroidery hoops, or sometimes she would have me snip a loose end after she’d re-threaded her lips.
Our language in those hours was the tune we’d pass back and forth without a word. Hm-hm-hm, we’d hum, and then smile to each other.
We were quite alike, I thought. Both of us took readily to thread, needle, and shears. We enjoyed all that sewing and humming, and sometimes Mother taught me how to dance. Practice for the future, she would tell me, for when I would someday grow up, dance with men from town, and find myself a husband.
When I asked how she could live without eating or drinking, she told me her sustenance came from the sun’s warmth, my laughter, Father’s love, and the ocean’s music. Our house sits on a cliff overlooking jagged rocks and a frothing sea, and often I’d find her staring out and listening to the waves.
“Do you want to leave us?” I asked her one day.
Mother shook her head and smiled a stitch-lipped smile. The water’s rhythm gave her comfort, that was all. On nights when Father was away on business, she stayed in a small attic room at the top of the house, storage for things from her old life, where a wide window looked out on the cliffs and infinite waves. That same ocean music helped her sleep, I supposed.
I only asked her once why her lips were sealed. Her deliberate hands told me that when she was a girl, she had an ill sister. On the night that child-aunt passed away, Mother snuck into her bed, coaxed out her last words, and then ate her dreams. Mother’s lips remained shut from then on, else her sister’s dead wishes would surge screaming from freed jaws.
Her tale scared me so badly that I never asked her again. Surely that was her intent. For a time, it even worked.
But in adolescence, I learned about the world and what it does to us, of childbirth’s horrors. For weeks, I had constant nightmares of Mother drowning in agony, yet unable to shriek as she gave birth to me, a wailing baby who had stolen her screams.
I began to wonder exactly how alike we were. I wondered if we sat and sewed and hummed together because someday I might trade mending cloth for threading my own lips. Practice for the future.
I had to free her. If a dead child-aunt came screaming from within, then I would scream with her. No matter the price, I had to open Mother’s lips. Perhaps then mine would stay unsealed.
It was only a matter of time before Father traveled on business again. He would only be gone for one night; that was my chance. I waited hours after dark for Mother to drift up to her attic room. Her cot creaked, and a long quiet followed until I was sure she was asleep.
I was never more quiet than when I climbed those worn attic steps, shifting my weight so the wood wouldn’t groan. The steel of my sewing shears felt cold against my sweating palm.
The attic room was no stranger to me by daylight, but I’d never stepped inside at night. Moonlight shone through the sea-facing window and colored the walls in white lunar brilliance. I spotted a rusted flintlock pistol mounted on a wooden plaque. Behind panes of glass, I found ancient letters bearing royal insignias in strange languages, the paper worn by centuries.
Mother looked to have plundered many shipwrecks. She had given up a life of some adventure to settle with Father, and in return he’d made her sew her lips shut.
Moonlight draped her peaceful face. Her breath was soft, almost silent. One might think she was dead, but even in sleep, her familiar hum danced in my ears. Hm-hm-hm, we hummed together as I leaned the shears toward her lips.
The blades opened. One wayward scrape, a snip too loud, and she’d wake up. What would she do then?
The blades snapped shut, and one black thread split in two. Her ragged lips parted ever so slightly. I flinched to scuttle back and count myself lucky for getting away with this much, but I couldn’t quit until finished.
Shears forward, I snipped another thread, and then another. Mother’s lips drifted apart until at last I’d cut them free.
Morning was too far away to wait on hearing her voice; I needed it right then. I cupped my free hand around her chin and tugged her jaw open. My shoulders tensed.
But there was no sisterly scream. There was a song.
Beautiful, sorrowful notes swam past my Mother’s lips and filled the night. Soaked in longing and splendor more powerful than any hum, it was the kind of song that made me smile and cry all at once. I clasped my hands, no longer sweating, and sat beside the bed to listen. My eyelids grew heavy. This was an old lullaby I had needed as a baby, been denied for years, at last set free by my own hand.
My drowsy reverie ended when the house shuddered. Thunder crashed through the walls, as if a giant’s fist had slammed into the cliff overlooking the sea. Mother went on sleeping and singing somehow, but I heard another sound sliding between beauty and chaos. I ran to the sea-facing window.
Moonlight painted the clifftop, where figures of men darted past the house, toward the cliff—
I shut my eyes and covered my ears, but that did not shut out their screams as they plummeted to the sea. Thunder crashed again, and the house quaked.
Mother slept through it all, coaxed into dreams by her own lullaby.
I didn’t count how many men had flung themselves off the cliff by Father’s return the next morning. I never looked out that window again. He climbed into the attic carrying needle and thread, his ears stuffed with wax-coated cloth as if on his way back, someone had warned him what happened to men who drew too close to home. He woke Mother and helped clamp her jaw shut while she sewed her lips together once more. It had been her choice all along.
He didn’t speak to me. Neither did she.
Boats soon went out on the water, rowed by townswomen who’d come looking for brothers, sons, husbands, lovers. I watched from the cliff overlooking the sea.
And I saw worse. There is neither port nor beach beneath our cliff, only jagged rocks and a sheer wall. Ships that had been sailing by moonlight would not have headed here, but when Mother’s song filled the night, the sailors had steered our way, where merciless waters tore their hulls apart. The wreckage floated far out to sea, carried by the tide. I couldn’t count the ships; their pieces were too small.
There were no survivors.
Mother doesn’t watch the sea anymore. She sits on the cliff still, listening to the water’s rhythm, but she keeps her back turned to the waves, and she no longer hums.
Some days, I think of how alike we are, and I wonder what inherited song might rise up my throat unbidden. She’s made a choice, but I don’t think she understands it. She hasn’t given up her old life, voice, and songs so that she can live with Father and me. We’re already hers. She’s given up these things so that she can have what she wants but not drive anyone to drown for it.
And then I think we might not be so alike after all.
Nowadays, I’m the one who watches the sea. I scan the rocks for drowning men and driftwood draped by shipwrecked corpses, so that I’ll get used to seeing them. Practice for the future, you might say. I practice many things for the future, but I don’t sew anymore.
“The Inheritance Thread,” by Hailey Piper, was first published on November 19, 2020 in Love Letters to Poe and can be found in Love Letters to Poe: Volume 1, Issue 2.
Interview with Hailey Piper, Author of “The Inheritance Thread”
What inspired your story?
I think a classic expectation of women was to be seen and not heard. It travels down generations, and though no one says it exactly that way these days, I think we’ve all felt it in the wrong company or conversations. It doesn’t come from nowhere. I was not in the best mood while stitching the story together in my head. I began to think about what kind of creature would be this way, and what mother would expect the same fate of her daughter, all for polite society to keep turning its wheels.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Part of me wants to say “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, but I feel like everyone says that, so I should dig a little deeper. “Spawn of the Green Abyss” by C. Hall Thompson is one. It’s usually labeled with weird fiction or cosmic horror, but it wears gothic trappings on its sleeve, hat, and shoes. I think that’s why I enjoy it; it’s more a mash-up and I enjoy those.
How long have you been writing?
If I remember right, I was eight when I began writing. I had just read Jurassic Park and wanted to do my own. It turned out that writing a book was a lot more work than an eight-year-old could manage though.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I think there are various themes I keep coming back to, such as identity and our place in the world. My wife says that a lot of my stories focus on eating. She’s probably right, but hunger is such a primal aspect of all living things. It was interesting to write a character in “The Inheritance Thread” who didn’t need food in the same way as others.
What are you working on now?
Many things! Off Limits Press is putting out my newest book, The Worm and His Kings, a cosmic horror novella. I’m at different stages between a body horror novel and a coming of age horror novella, while also getting edits and things for my first short story collection, Unfortunate Elements of My Anatomy, coming from The Seventh Terrace in spring 2021. I’m also trying to get back into short fiction where I can. I’ve been working on bigger projects so much of this year, and I’d like to spend time writing more short fiction.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?