Authors: V. C. Andrews
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For Bill Andrews,
whose wonderful sense of humor and enthusiasm for the written word was and remains an inspiration.
Religious icons in gold with dark red backgrounds or in silver and pewter hung on almost every wall in my grandparents’ modest two-story Queen Anne home just outside the hamlet of Lake Hurley, New York. They were especially prominent in my small bedroom at the rear of the house. Almost every year, my grandmother added another one on my walls, pounding the small nails to hang them on as if she thought she was pounding them into my very soul.
I wouldn’t have complained, even if I could. Almost anything dressed up the room, especially anything with any color. It had dull gray-brown walls in desperate need of a new paint job or wallpaper, a saucer-shaped ceiling light fixture with a weak bulb to save on electricity, and a standing lamp on a brass pole with an anemic, yellowing white shade that I had to use for my desk lamp. The floor was charcoal-painted cement with a six-by-eight, well-worn olive-green area rug vacuumed to the point where the floor showed through in some places. The rug had been in the living room when my grandparents first bought the house, now close to thirty-five years ago.
It was easy to see that my room was not meant to be a bedroom. There was no window. The only fresh air came from a vent near the ceiling and the open doorway. The door had been removed fifteen years ago so that my grandmother could look in to see what I was doing anytime she wanted. The room was originally designed to be a storage room. The holes in the walls where the shelves were once attached were still there. The room confirmed the view I had of myself. I always felt as if I had been placed in storage in this house.
However, regardless of what it was and what it had been, the room had to be kept as immaculate as any other. My grandmother was fully convinced that cleanliness was next to godliness and was fond of chanting it at me whenever she ordered me to polish or wash anything. She had that as one of her needlework sayings framed and hung on the hallway wall just outside my room. When I was much younger and we walked past it together, she would frequently pause in front of it, touch it, and recite it, getting me to repeat it. It was also all right for me to touch the religious icons, as long as when I touched them, I did so with reverence and said a silent prayer for my own troubled soul. If I left even the smallest smudge, I was sent to my room without dinner. From an early age, I realized that the dirt I left was somehow dirtier than any my grandparents left.
As soon as I was able to handle a mop and a rag, mix soap and water properly, and put some muscle behind scrubbing, I was made to clean my own room first thing every morning. I never cleaned it well enough for my grandmother’s liking and still don’t even now. She had eagle eyes when it came to a spot of dirt or a new stain, and pounced on them with as much glee as a hawk has when it pounces on a baby squirrel. She made me feel I was deliberately missing the spot, as if being dirty was part of my very nature.
I’m sure there were few, if any, six-year-old girls in our community forced to do this kind of housecleaning and to wash and dry their own clothes, too. I also had to iron, and I consequently burned myself a few times because the iron was heavy in my small hands. The first time, I wasn’t given anything to ease the pain, no matter how hard I cried.
“Pain,” my grandmother told me, “is the guardian of good. It keeps you from violating a commandment, a rule, or a law. Suffering is the only really effective teacher. Cut yourself playing with something you shouldn’t, and you won’t play with it again. That’s why people are in constant agony in hell.”
Despite all of this religious fury blowing through our house with tornado intensity at times, my grandparents weren’t avid churchgoers. If anything, they saw the clergymen they knew as hypocrites. They actually railed against organized religion, complaining about corruption, both financial and moral, and never contributed to any religious charity run by the church. They believed a well-kept religious home was church enough if the people living within it followed the commandments and were pure at heart, whatever that meant. Sometimes I imagined my grandmother taking her heart out and scrubbing it in the sink with the harsh side of a sponge.
I can’t remember the actual moment when my light blue infant eyes were able to focus and my developing nervous system was able to interpret shapes and colors. No one could remember that, but I’m confident that the first face I really saw clearly was the face of the infant Jesus. For my first few years in that back room of the first floor, the room that was hastily set up as my nursery and stayed my room, this framed print of the infant Jesus was all that was on the wall I faced daily. I woke up with it and fell asleep with it. It’s still there today among the other biblical prints and plaques.
When I was old enough to do so, I was ordered to recite my prayers to the picture of the baby Jesus before I went to sleep and the moment I awoke. My grandmother designed the prayer so that the first line, which didn’t make sense to me since I had little chance to sin while I was sleeping, was “Forgive me, Jesus, for I have sinned.”
When I was a little girl, I feared that my grandmother could see the moment my eyes opened and would know if I didn’t recite the prayer. The punishment, when she either saw me not pray or believed I didn’t, was no breakfast and some added task such as scrubbing the kitchen floor, with the aromas of eggs and bacon swirling around me, making my stomach growl and bringing fresh tears to my eyes.
For almost anyone else, I’m sure these biblical scenes, depictions of saints and prophets, and framed needlework prayers and sayings would provide a sense of security, a holy wall keeping out what Grandmother Myra called the “nasties out there.” She had me believing that they came right up to our front door at night and would have come in to devour us if we didn’t have the icons and blessings in clear view. Nevertheless, despite all her warnings and assurances that the obedient are protected, from the day I could conceive of escaping, I was beguiled by the thought of living out there, free from any commandments except the ones I declared for myself.
It seemed to me that I was always sitting by a window, looking out like some lost and lonely young woman waiting for her Cinderella prince to come riding up on a magnificent white stallion. He would beckon to me, and I would rush out to take his hand, and he would gently pull me up to sit behind him. I could see us galloping off, leaving all of this behind and forgotten like some terribly unpleasant dream.
That’s what my life in this prison-home quickly had become and still was, a nightmare. Just to go outside like any other child and explore the wonders of nature, the wildflowers, the insects, and the different birds, even just to lie on the grass and watch the clouds being sculpted by the wind, was like a short break granted to a convict in his otherwise heavily regimented day in a cold and dismal place. Whenever I was permitted outside, I would take deep breaths of fresh air as if I had to store it in my lungs for weeks until my next release.
If I tried to bring something back in with me, something as innocent as a dead bee because I was intrigued with its shape and features, I was in for a paddling, with the same paddle my grandfather’s father had used on him, and then sent to my room without supper. I learned that the paddle had been retrieved from some box in the attic shortly after I was able to walk.
Everything I did, no matter how small, was watched, studied, and judged. From what I clearly understood, this scrutinizing of my every breath, every move, and every sound began in the cradle, as if something a baby did, the way she looked at them, the way she cried or even burped, could be interpreted as either something good or something that smelled of evil.
Instead of common baby toys such as animals that made sounds, or toys that made music, or toys I could take apart and put together, I was given crucifixes and crosses to touch and study. One had the figure of Jesus with his crown of thorns attached. I would trace the body of Jesus with my tiny fingers, intrigued, and even, when I was older and had more control of my arms and hands, try to take it off the cross, which frightened my grandmother. From what she would tell me later, that was one of the first clear indications that I was polluted the way a lake or a pond could be polluted, and it was her and my grandfather’s task to do what they could to cleanse my soul. It was her way of explaining why everything harsh they did to me was necessary.
I was born in this house and in that back-room nursery on a dark, foggy night when the air was full of cold rain not yet ready to become drops. The weather on my birthday was very important to my grandparents. The fact that it was their home that would welcome me into the world terrified them enough as it was, but the ugly weather that night only reinforced their fears. That’s what my mother would tell me when I finally met her and we talked. While she was describing my birth and the howling of the wind, I kept thinking of the witches in
saying, “Fair is foul and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
“The fog, the wet darkness, and the cold air that seemed to seep into the house through every crack and cranny confirmed all their darkest thoughts that night, Elle,” my mother said. “I’ll never forget the look on their faces when you came out looking normal, with two legs and two arms. I think they, at least my mother, expected you to have a tail and horns.”
My grandmother more or less had confirmed all that. Maybe she didn’t believe I really would have horns and a tail, but in her mind, it was as if I did.
“There was no joy at the sound of your first cry,” my grandmother admitted to me when she thought I was old enough to understand and appreciate her efforts to purify me. She described how she and my grandfather crossed themselves and held my hands: “Your grandfather on one side and me on the other, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. You squirmed as if hearing those words was painful.”
She made me clearly understand how much fear they had in their hearts at the sight of me. But she didn’t tell me all this and more in greater detail until nearly twelve years later, when I began to wonder constantly about why I was so restricted and questioned the heavy rules under which I lived. Every time I saw a young girl or boy go by our house or saw images of children in books and on the little television I was permitted to watch, I longed to understand why I wasn’t permitted to play with any, much less speak to any.
It was shocking to learn that I was born secretly and not given a name immediately. Sometimes I think that if they could have, they would have kept me anonymous forever, but they couldn’t go on denying my existence. Finally, they decided to name me Elle because it could mean God’s promise and that there was some hope. Otherwise, I’m sure they thought, why bother? I used to wonder if my grandmother was capable back then of drowning me the way I’d seen her drown baby mice. I was told that before they named me, they simply called me “the child” or referred to me as “it.” “It’s not eating.” “It’s not sleeping.” “It’s crying too much.”
Right from the start, I was more like a creature than a human child in their eyes. Of course, I often wondered what my mother and father could have been like for my grandparents to harbor such thoughts. For years after I was old enough to begin to think about my birth, I would ask about my parents and only be more frustrated with the answers.
“Where is my father? Where is my mother? Why don’t I ever see them?”
“You will never see your father,” my grandmother told me finally. “He dropped his sperm into your mother as casually as someone drops a letter into a mailbox and didn’t wait to see it delivered. You might see your mother someday, although I doubt it.”