It wasn’t until the eve of her thirtieth birthday that Louise learned she had died as a young girl. She was certain she had never met the woman who told her this, and yet at first there was nothing unpleasant about the encounter, despite the circumstances.
This is how it happened.
An hour or more after falling exhausted into bed, Louise was still awake. These were, after all, the final moments of her twenties, and the longer she forced her eyes to stay shut the further her thoughts wandered. It seemed to be a backward journey. Behind her eyes appeared places and faces she hadn’t bothered to recall since she first forgot them; a teacher at her primary school who had never taught her; a boy who’d attended her second-grade class for only one term, whose name she could not pry from the dregs of memory, but whose underwear she could still see pulled high above the waist of his pants.
Finally, she saw the farm they had moved away from when she was only two. She had no real recollection of the place, but she had seen the sun-bleached photographs in her mother’s laminated albums and had heard the stories. The smell of wet grass filled her nose even as she pressed her face to the sweat on her pillow.
Ahead was the pond at the front of the property, the stagnant water green around the edges with algae. She kept falling to her hands and knees as she tried to walk toward it. Somewhere nearby was her mother. She knew this in a dreamlike way, though she couldn’t see her. She tried to bring to mind her mother’s face when it was younger, but the image wouldn’t come. All she could do was stumble inside her head, toward the water, until only a muddled darkness filled her mind’s eye, one that deepened until it was the colour of nothing.
Was she finally asleep?
Louise opened her eyes to the dark and was aware at once of an alteration in the air. Shifting under the sheets, she turned to the nightstand to check the alarm clock and found it dead, the lurid red numbers simply gone. It was then that she sensed, without much alarm, another presence in her bedroom.
A woman sat in the chair by the window. At first, squinting down the length of her bed, Louise could make out nothing but a shadowed, human-shaped bulk just beyond her feet. She knew it was a woman, though she couldn’t say how.
“Who are you?” Louise whispered.
The shape in the chair shifted slightly; Louise got the sense that it had become aware of her.
“I’ve fallen asleep, haven’t I?” she said next, speaking more to herself than to her apparent visitor.
“Why don’t you turn a light on?” came a quiet voice from the chair. “No sense talking in the dark if we don’t have to.”
Even the sound of a stranger’s voice in her bedroom failed to terrify Louise. There was nothing terrifying about the voice itself; it was soft and conversational, with only the faintest trace of a rural English lilt.
Louise hesitated before reaching out and striking the bedside light.
It was a woman, just as she’d known. Old but not quite elderly. Motherly was the word that first sprang to mind. The smiling face was plain and unmemorable, yet exuded patience and warmth.
“That’s better,” the woman said, chuckling softly. “I for one always prefer speaking to someone I can see.”
Louise, rigid on her elbows, glared across the room. The woman sat comfortably in the reading chair by the window, wrapped in the quilt that usually lay folded at the foot of the bed. She was clearly oblivious to the brazen nature of her intrusion. In fact, as Louise kept watching, the woman’s eyes slowly dropped and began to close, as if she herself were preparing to sleep.
“Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here?” Louise tried to sound firm.
The woman stirred to attention. “Why do you ask that?” she said, offended. “Of course, if you don’t want me here I can always —”
“I only mean,” Louise cut in, “that I don’t know who you are.”
The warm expression on the woman’s face slowly transformed, her smile disappearing as her mouth fell open, aghast. “Is this some kind of joke?”
Louise dragged her hands back and forth across her face and found the woman still there once she’d finished. Throwing aside the covers, she slid from bed and padded down the hall to the kitchen where she stood for a moment in the cold light of the open fridge, tiredly examining leftover cheesecake encased in plastic wrap.
She was awake, she decided, but not hungry. Calmly shutting the fridge door, she poured a glass of water at the sink, sipped from it, then carried it back down the hall to her room.
“Can I have one of those?” said the woman, looking eagerly at the glass in Louise’s hand. “It’s a bit stuffy in here, you know. Dries the throat.”
Louise, exhausted though she was, studied the woman. Her pale face was flushed faintly in the cheeks, her orange-blond hair neatly curled and resting on her shoulders. She wondered if there was something familiar about her, or if she simply had one of those faces that looked like so many others.
“Am I going to have to get it myself?” the woman said impatiently.
Louise walked over and placed the glass on the windowsill. “Don’t mention it,” she said.
The woman didn’t seem to hear. Her hands remained hidden beneath the flowery quilt, and her eyes had dropped again, slowly closing with each blink.
Louise, at a loss, decided to follow suit. It was late and she was tired and tomorrow she would be thirty. In fact, as she crawled back into bed, the screen of her alarm clock caught her eye. – It was working again, and it informed her that midnight had just come and gone.
She turned out the light and lay on her back, searching herself for some emotion. She hadn’t felt any pang of insight when gazing into the fridge’s lighted interior a few minutes ago. The days had changed, and she felt no different now. She wondered what time she had been born. Something else to ask her mother about tomorrow. Today.
There came a small wet sound as the woman by the window cleared her throat. “Sometime early in the morning,” she said, and then coughed gently. “After a long battle through the night.”
It took a moment before Louise realized that her mind had been read. She looked down to the woman, once again only a mass of shadow, and let out a sharp sigh. “Really?” she said. “Are you supposed to be some kind of guardian angel?”
The woman laughed quietly. “I know you don’t believe in nonsense like that.”
Louise didn’t know what to believe. She considered asking another question about herself, as a kind of test, but found that she couldn’t be bothered. She didn’t care who or what this woman was — whether she was real, a ghost, or some fragment of a lucid dream — and she wasn’t interested in what she knew. All she wanted was to fall asleep and to be alone when she woke in the morning.
“Goodnight then,” came the voice from beyond the foot of the bed.
Louise rolled onto her side and heaved the blankets up to her chin. “Night,” she mumbled into her pillow.
But when she closed her eyes, she saw what she’d seen before, murky darkness dappled here and there with spots of yellow light. She tried to think of something else, of nothing at all, but the image held on.
“The pond,” said the voice outside of her head. “The bottom of the pond.”
“There’s hardly a week that goes by when I don’t think of it. And it’s not like I meant to keep it a secret from you, it’s just that I never knew how to bring it up. The shame of it.”
She was too tired to stop the voice, to tell it to be quiet. Besides, there was something dreamy in its hushed cadence, a softness she felt could so easily put her to sleep. She kept her eyes shut and said nothing.
“You weren’t yet two and it was the day you learned to walk. I carried you out to the front yard and helped you to stand, and off you went. You’d take a few quick steps and fall to your knees, then push yourself back up and keep going.”
Again, Louise tried to conjure her mother’s face from when she was a child, but the features wouldn’t quite form. It was somehow difficult to navigate her thoughts in a certain direction.
“Your father was at work, of course, but I had to tell him, tell somebody. I told you to keep at it and rushed back inside. I was so excited I didn’t think. Of course, I never would have suspected…”
A coldness crept over Louise as the voice continued. What had been soothing a moment ago was now nauseating. Her stomach began to twist as her head spun, slowly at first, then faster, as though she had just collapsed dead drunk into bed.
“You have to believe me.”
Louise no longer wanted to listen, but the words now seemed to emanate from somewhere inside her. “By the time I came back and saw you face-down in the water, there was a moment when I couldn’t move.”
Now she was sure she would be sick. She tried to open her eyes but couldn’t, and neither would her arms nor legs move when she fought to free herself from the covers. She was trapped in a whirling darkness, drowning, phantom limbs thrashing madly as she lay paralyzed and silent, sinking deeper and deeper beneath the sheets.
She woke with no memory of the nightmare ending. She’d been trying to scream through a constricted throat and then her eyes were open to daylight. For a moment she lay still, breathing and blinking up at the ceiling, half embarrassed by the exquisite sense of relief and the freedom of movement as she stretched her waking limbs.
Pushing herself up against the headboard, her eyes were drawn to the glass on the windowsill, then to the quilt lying in a heap on the chair underneath. She froze mid-stretch, scalp prickling at the uncanny sense of someone else. But there was no one. There had been no one. The face of the woman came in a flash and was gone, the features more vague the harder she tried to recall them. Instead, she thought of her mother’s face. How absurd that she hadn’t been able to bring it to mind the night before.
Louise got up and wrapped herself in a housecoat. She took the water from the windowsill and drank it down, warm and tasting of dust. Then she folded the quilt into a small rectangle and placed it neatly at the foot of the bed.
On her way to the kitchen, her phone came to life in her hand. She answered it and was treated to a loud recital of “Happy Birthday” that she knew she was powerless to cut short. Smiling, she muted her end of the line so she could measure out coffee beans and grind them, then jumped back in just in time to pretend to laugh.
“My only baby’s turned thirty,” her mother whined, sounding close to fake tears.
“Hardly a baby anymore, I’d say.”
“And to think you were nearly two when I was the age you are now,” her mother said. “I can still see you as a small thing, crawling about with the chickens on that old farm up island that your dad thought was such a good idea. God rest his soul.”
Louise paused as she put the decanter in place and set the machine to brew. “It’s funny you should say that,” she said distantly, and then said nothing else.
It wasn’t only the mention of the farm that unsettled her. It was the voice in her ear as well. Louise rarely registered her mother’s Midlands accent, now only a rumour after so many years on the West Coast of Canada, but it brought to mind the voice from her dream, the one she’d all but forgotten until this moment.
“Oh?” Her mother sounded intrigued. “Were you thinking of him? Because you know he’d just be so proud of —”
“No,” Louise said, “not exactly. I wasn’t really thinking of anything, to be honest. It’s just that I had this dream…” She paused again, wondering if it was worth it. Then, deciding to take the plunge, “It’s funny. I’d almost forgotten all about it until you mentioned the farm just now. You know how that happens?”
Her mother said nothing.
“Well,” Louise went on, “all that basically happened was that I was trying to walk toward that pond in front of the house, but I kept falling down. And I could see it so clearly even though I don’t think I remember it at all. Then there was this voice telling me things. It was weird. It was like you were narrating the dream, telling me what was happening and what was going to happen…”
Louise allowed her words to peter out, not knowing how to interpret the dead silence on her mother’s end of the line.
“I’m here,” her mother loudly whispered, like she was speaking to a friend from a hiding place.
“Well,” Louise said, “I don’t really know why I brought it up. I was just reminded when you —”
“What happened?” her mother asked.
“What happened next? How did it end?”
Louise hesitated. She put a hand to the counter, suddenly recalling the motionless vertigo that had gripped her in the seconds before she blacked out.
“I can’t remember,” she lied. “I can’t remember how it ended.”
There was another silence on her mother’s end, like she’d put the phone down and wandered away.
“Well, I can tell you if you want.” Again, that hushed, secretive tone.
Louise poured black coffee into a large mug adorned with Oscar Wilde’s smug face and snide words. “What are you talking about?”
“There’s hardly a week that goes by when I don’t think of it. And it’s not like I meant to keep it a secret from you, it’s just that I never knew how to bring it up. The shame of it.”
Louise felt the room tilt slightly. Some coffee spilled to the floor as she placed the mug down on the counter.
“You weren’t yet two and it was the day you learned to walk. I carried you out to the front yard and helped you to stand, and off you went. You’d take a few quick steps and —”
“Mom,” Louise nearly shouted. She tried to breathe evenly. “Why are you saying this?”
“Because, Louise,” her mother sighed. “Because you died that day. I left you for one minute, or what I meant to be only one minute, and when I came back you were…you must have…”
But Louise already knew. She knew what it was to drown. She could still see the picture of nothing that lay on the other side of her memory.
“Why don’t you come over?” she said. “I mean now instead of later like we’d planned.”
“Really? I mean, sure, if you’d like. Of course.”
“We can talk about it more then. Or we don’t have to. Either way’s okay.”
“Right, well,” said her mother, flustered. “How about I just tidy up a bit and then I’ll head on over.”
“All right then.”
“See you soon.”
Once she had eaten, showered, and dressed, Louise almost felt like her whole self again. She was already beginning to believe that none of this significantly changed anything. So what if she had drowned herself as a toddler? So what if her poor mother had felt compelled all these years to keep such a secret out of shame? Now she was thirty, and alive, and respectably successful. It would be something to tell her friends about later that evening over drinks. Something to laugh about. An icebreaker on her next first date.
By the time her buzzer sounded, and she heard her mother’s smiling voice wish her happy birthday through the intercom, Louise had decided not to allow the news of her own death to dampen her spirits. Outside the kitchen window, the day looked bright and brand new. They could get out and go for a walk down by the water or through the park. Maybe wander down Cook Street and sit for a while on a patio, have an early drink and a light lunch.
The knock came and Louise answered it. She smiled as she opened the door, but it was the last smile her face would wear for some time. When she saw who it was that had come to see her, who it was that stood holding flowers and wrapped gifts in the hallway of her apartment building, everything else in her life seemed far away, not really there at all.
“No.” Louise put a hand to the doorframe to steady herself.
The woman who was not her mother had been smiling as well, but now her expression changed. “What’s the matter?” she said breathlessly. “Louise, you look sick.”
Louise looked at the face that she had dreamt about, the one she’d forgotten from the night before. “What are you doing here?” she said accusingly, and took a step back into her apartment.
The burden in the woman’s arms lowered as her shoulders slouched. There was a bouquet of bright flowers and gifts in purple wrapping paper, but Louise hadn’t seen any of them. She looked only at the face, at the eyes that looked back at her in a different kind of confusion.
“Jesus, Louise,” the woman said. “It was your idea that I come now instead of later. You said so on the phone only an hour ago.”
The most awful part, perhaps, was that she spoke in the voice of Louise’s mother, a voice Louise had heard most days of her life and that her friends liked to playfully mock. But it was not her mother.
“Of course,” said the woman in the hallway, “if you don’t want me here I can always—”
Louise screamed as she slammed the door.
Throughout her thirties and into middle age, there were moments now and then when Louise was almost able to convince herself, and be convinced by others, that her mother had not really been replaced by a stranger.
In the wake of the rift between them, she had studied every photograph in the old family albums and had found the woman who’d raised her in none of them. In her stead was the same imposter, over and over again. She had consulted aunts and uncles, close friends, as well as friends of friends. They all gave her the same nervous smile when she began her account, sure that it was part of some bizarre prank, and then the same look of bewilderment once she’d finished. “What’s this really about?” they would say to her. “Don’t you know your own mother?”
Then there were the various specialists and the array of medications that came with them. For a while it was easy to believe just about anything until, against all professional counsel, Louise refused further treatment. It was easier just to pretend, she finally decided. It was easier to keep the memory of her mother’s face a secret from the doctors and from everyone else who would never believe her.
And she would keep it, she promised herself. She would hold onto the image like a priceless treasure for as long as she lived, carrying it carefully inside of herself because it existed nowhere else.
When she was nearly sixty, she carried it with her to the funeral for the woman who had visited her on the morning of her thirtieth birthday. The woman who’d spoken with her mother’s voice and who’d held all of her mother’s memories and mannerisms, and who, in her final months, often mistook Louise for someone else — a nurse or a niece or some other soul from her long-ago past.
Sometimes, toward the end, Louise would sit by the window at the foot of the woman’s hospice bed, wrapped in a very old quilt her mother had made for her a lifetime ago. She would often stay for as long as visiting hours lasted, reading a book, or simply letting her thoughts wander, looking up now and then at the hairless head of the dying woman in front of her.
“Where’s Bill?” the woman would ask abruptly, referring to Louise’s father. “I need to telephone Bill about the bank account. Tomorrow’s Friday.”
Louise would then put her book upside down in her lap and raise her eyes to the woman’s face, the face of a total stranger. “Bill’s dead,” she would say calmly.
It was what the nurses had instructed her to say; the worst thing you could do at this stage was lie. She would explain when he had died, and how, and how long it had been since then. She would relate this information perhaps five or more times per visit, and she would watch as the woman’s features relaxed with remembrance, her bald head sinking back into the pillow.
“Yes,” the woman would say at last, a little embarrassed. “Of course. I don’t know how I could have forgotten.” Then her eyes would fix themselves to Louise. “I know you, don’t I? Is that you, Louise?”
And, when she was ready to leave, Louise would frown as she returned the woman’s gaze. “Don’t you remember?” she’d say, and then wait a moment. “Louise died.”
The two words would hang in the air between them like poison. Then the woman would shake her tragic head.
“No,” she’d say. “No, she didn’t. Not my Louise.”
“It happened on the farm up island, with the pond out front. You remember, don’t you?”
And Louise could see that she remembered quite clearly. Her eyes would clench shut as she saw the memory, her frail body struggling beneath the paper-thin sheets.
“It was the day she learned to walk. You brought her out to the front yard and watched her for a while. Then you needed to tell somebody. You needed to go back inside to use the phone and tell somebody.”
It was usually here when the howling began. Louise would put a hand to her mouth in feigned surprise as the first caregiver rushed in. She was sorry, she’d say as she got to her feet. She had no idea what had happened.
On her way to the door, amid the commotion, she would turn to look once more at the woman writhing in a bed that confined her, screaming the name of a girl who had drowned.