by Marta Pelrine-Bacon
Clarice possessed a fascination for sharp, glittering things. In her upstairs room she kept knives, needles, and razors hidden in a red box under her bed. Almost every one of them was stolen.
Her mother couldn’t even abide the sight of cutlery and the sight of blood made her faint. Clarice didn’t understand her mother at all. Everything had to be soft. Edges were rounded or padded. Once Clarice had gotten a paper cut and her mother had nearly banned all books. Even so, now she had to wear white gloves to turn a page.
Then there was the nightmare of birthdays. Clarice hated birthdays. Her mother spent hours at the guest list. She never crossed off a name but added and added. Every year, as the children made more friends she had to lengthen the list. Everyone in the house had to check the list so many times they could recite the names in their dreams.
A maid did all the cooking, so the children were not allowed in the kitchen and all the food was served cut into pieces for them. The children were not to lose the smallest drop of blood. Nannies and tutors were fired if one of the children scuffed a knee.
Nor did her mother sleep well. “I’ve slept enough already for several lifetimes,” her mother would say. Late at night her mother stayed curled up on the sofa and stared at the television. She watched movies and shows of other worlds and times and great adventures.
On the night of her sixteenth birthday, Clarice snuck out of her room. For years, she’d imagined being out, unmissed and unguarded, and the first step beyond the sight of the house sent a thrill through her heart.
Clarice had planned to wander. She wanted to take her time. Touch lampposts. Run her fingers along brick walls. Stop in a diner and order food that required a knife.
For her adventure she took thinnest sharpest blade from the red box and slipped in the side of boot. When she stepped out the back door, the knife’s edge pressed into her ankle, but she didn’t stop to check her skin.
The shadows of the nighttime world surprised her in spite of all the stories she’d read in preparation. She couldn’t shake the feeling the shadows were the cloaks of ghosts as if they’d been there all this time waiting for her. She decided to find a place to sit and think about her plans.
At the first bench she came to sat an old woman. Clarice had no fear of an old woman, and so she sat at the other end of the bench. She took her lipstick and a mirror out of her purse.
“That’s a very pretty shade of lipstick, dear,” the old woman said.
“Thanks. It’s called True Red,” Clarice replied. “Or something like that.”
“A good color for a girl wanting adventure.” The old woman worked at the many rings around her fingers.
Clarice laughed. “What are you doing out here at this hour? My parents always tell me the world isn’t safe for old people and children after dark.”
“You’re here too,” the old woman said. “You can’t listen to your parents and my parents have long been dead.”
“My parents are afraid of everything. Especially my mom.”
The old woman nodded. “Parents want to protect their children. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“Were you like that? With your kids, I mean.”
“I never had children of my own.” She continued to twist her rings.
“Those are pretty rings,” Clarice said, feeling she should give the woman a compliment as well.
The old woman held her hands out in front of her with her fingers outstretched. The silver bands, some with stones, gleamed in the streetlight. “Thank you, dear. Though I’m really getting too old for such frippery.”
The old woman smiled. “Which ring do you like best?”
“Oh. Well. That’s hard to say. But, if I had to choose, I guess I’d choose that one with the stars.” A stream of sharp-pointed stars wrapped around the woman’s gnarled finger.
“Good choice.” She slipped the ring off. “Here, dear. It’s for you.”
Clarice sat up straighter. The ring wasn’t candy from a stranger exactly, but her mother would see it the same way. “Good heavens, ma’am. I can’t take that. You don’t even know me.”
“I’m old and have no children,” the woman said. “I had a son once.” Her voice trailed off. “You’re young and have adventure waiting for you. Take it and you’ll remember me. You’ll be about the only person to do so.”
Clarice let the woman place the ring in her hand. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
“Go on and put it on.”
“I hope it isn’t too big.” The ring rested in Clarice’s open palm.
“It will fit. I promise. On your ring finger—like you’re getting married.”
“I’m too young to get married.” Clarice wasn’t sure what to make of the old woman’s smile, but she put the ring on like she was told, and just as the old woman promised the ring felt as if it had been made for her. “You know,” said Clarice, “you don’t seem that old.”
“It’s hard for the young and inexperienced to know what they see.”
“I wish had something to give you…wait.” Clarice took the knife from her boot. “You could take this. You could use it to protect yourself.”
“Then what would you have for protection, dear?”
“Oh, I’ve got a box of knives under my bed at home.”
“That’s too far away now to be of much use,” the old woman said, taking the knife from the girl.
“So you think my parents are right then—the world is a much too dangerous place?” It seemed to Clarice the old woman was looking less and less old and strangely less womanly.
The old woman straightened her back. “What is dangerous to some is thrilling to others.”
Clarice frowned. She must be more tired than she realized. The shadows played tricks on her mind. The old woman didn’t even sound like a woman anymore. “You said you have a son.”
“Hmm.” The woman worried the knife handle between her fingers.
“It’s odd,” Clarice said. “Looking at you now, I can see what he looks like. It’s amazing, really. I could almost trick myself into thinking I’m talking to him instead of to you.”
“The eyes play all kinds of tricks in the dark, my dear.”
Clarice imagined the old woman’s voice was deeper. “Do you like the knife?”
“I do,” came the answer. “But is already has a bit of blood on it.”
“My ankle. I’m sorry. I’ll clean it off.” She reached for the blade but the woman—or rather the old woman who looked more and more like a young man—moved the knife beyond her grasp.
“What’s a moon without a night sky to shine in? What’s a sharp edge without something to cut?”
Clarice watched as the old woman stood up, straighter and taller and more assured than ought to have been possible. “I think I need to get home,” she said.
“I think,” the old woman said and leaned over the girl, “that parents can’t protect their children from everything. Danger always has a way of getting in.”
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