Heads of Candy Floss
A river of perspiration traces your spine. You work to contain your excitement of the day ahead. Stretched across a wood frame in the middle of the kitchen is a log-cabin quilt of green, red, and off-white. Recently baked butter tarts line the table. A few are burnt. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee hangs in the air. Pots of young geraniums dot the sill of a south-facing window. Your mother wears a light blue flower pattern dress with a matching apron. Her tightly knotted bun and hair are covered in an organdy prayer cap. Your aunt and her two children smile at you and your mother still standing near the door. You slip off your running shoes. Size seven. Big for a girl in grade one.
“We thought you’d never get here,” says Edna. You turn and gesture at her to repeat what she said. You study her mouth as she enunciates the words again.
Edna’s a full year older than you. She wears glasses. Beneath her mocha eyes is a splash of freckles. Edna is tall and smells of lavender. Her little sister is Susannah. Her head is too big for her body. It wobbles from her neck like freshly kneaded bread dough. Her eyes are small and squinty. Last week you watched your mother’s lips call Susannah a leotard. You’ve never heard that word used that way before.
Edna removes a package of dominoes from the cupboard. She slides a plastic bowl of Cheerios toward you. You finger the cereal circles until you notice some are damp. You enjoy chaining tiles along the floor until Susannah tires of the game. Her kicking causes the dominoes to explode under the quilt. Her round face contorts as she wails. While Edna races around chasing spilled dominoes scattered among cereal circles, Susannah pounds the floor and almost succeeds at knocking down the entire frame. You want to tell her off but it’s hard. She never watches when you sign.
“Looks like it’s time for you three to get some fresh air,” says your aunt. “Mind the pond. The edges are still spongy.”
The notion of outside play takes Susannah’s mind off her meltdown. Edna helps her sister tie her bonnet. Two brown braids trail Susannah’s back. Her forehead shines big and bossy from beneath the hat’s rim.
You make a run for the door, too. Your mother taps your shoulder and mouths, “Use the toilet.” You watch as the girls slink out the door. You shrug and sign that you don’t understand what your mother’s mouthing. You try to deke away so you can follow the girls but your mother grabs your arm and turns your body toward her. She signs, “Now. Go to the washroom first.”
You pull your bloomers down and hop onto the toilet seat. What if the girls start playing without you? It’s never fun to join in late. The more you push, the harder it is to pee. You want to tell your cranky mother off. It’s embarrassing at your age to be reminded to use the washroom. Finally, pee trickles into the bowl. You struggle to lift the pail of flush-water but finally manage. Tissue paper swirls before being swallowed by the force of the liquid. You swish your fingers in a second bucket. Your cousins’ family is lucky. At your house, there’s just an outhouse.
You feel compelled to make up for the time wasted in the bathroom so you run down the front steps. Untied shoe laces cause you to tumble onto the flagstone pathway. Blood burbles from the scrapes on both knees. When you cry, your silent weeping brings no one to your rescue. You decide to get up and dust yourself off. By the time you fasten the ties of your bonnet, both girls are long gone.
You run to the swings but the girls aren’t there. You check the sand box, the wooden climber, and see-saw. No luck. You figure they’ve headed off for a walk. It’s been a wet spring. The grass between the first barn and the house has already grown past your waist. Your uncle will soon need to cut it with a scythe. A black fly chews the skin along your brow.
You wish you could yell at your cousins that you are ready to play and that they should wait up. You figure they’ve already started a game of hide and seek without you. Or catch the pony.
You follow foot steps through crushed grass. There’s a slight rise to climb before you approach the pond. Circling the water are last year’s cat tails. Their heads resemble candy floss stuck on a paper cone. One of these heads sits on the pathway, squashed and forgotten. What remains on the dry, bent stalk is an explosion of creamy yellow. Your mother told you a story once of the cat tail’s magical powers. The grass closer to the pond is so high it licks your ears. With strong hands and feet you smash your way to the water’s edge. What is revealed is a murky pond and the smell of rotten eggs.
Between your runners and the pond’s edge sit two bonnets. One green, the other purple. A discarded pair of black rimmed glasses. You dare to take one step closer and soon your shoes begin to take on water. You struggle to keep your balance on the greasy bank. Your fling your arms out in time to catch yourself just before sliding in.
From this vantage point float two mounds of dark fabric. They’re just out of reach. Edna and Susannah. You’re a stranger to this version of hide and seek. Your mouth opens in a failed attempt to call out. The pond water has completely swallowed Edna’s face. Susannah’s back is to you so you’re not able to see that her face is swelling up. Two braids like train rails jut from the dark velvet surface of the water.
A swift breeze causes the cousins to bob. You hold your breath until chest pain reminds you to exhale. The skin on your arms and legs erupts in a rash of goose pimples. You whip around in search of a stick. There’s a shard of bull rush near your hand. You grab it. You’re determined to poke the girls so they’ll wake up and stop playing a fool’s game but their bodies have now drifted to the centre of the pond. You let the stick drop from your fingers and run.
You race through the vine-like grass to escape the smell of the pond and the sight of the drenched dresses. For a second you contemplate returning to see if you can somehow coax some magic flying powers out of the candy floss cat tail heads. You laugh at your silliness until you remember you have a job to do. You consider which is closer: the barn or the house. Scabs have begun to form on your scraped knees and you hate how much they hurt. The ground en route to the buildings vibrates with hammering. On legs like a gazelle, you race to the barn made only of framing. Your father balances on an upper rung of a long ladder. He thrusts a mallet in the humid air. You look around and locate a spike nail. You strike the metal ladder over and over until the weight of this task drains your arm of blood. Finally your father faces you and signs, “What have we here?”
You clear your throat. Your father leans against the base of the ladder and gazes into your troubled face. With his hanky he wipes a streak of mud off your cheek. Spit collects in the corners of your mouth. Thin streaks of blood line your lacerated palms. It hurts too much to sign. With a voice like wind, you strain to say, “Come. Now.”
Cindy Matthews is a writer, visual artist, and online instructor for Queen’s University. She lives in Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in a number of Canadian and American journals. Her creative non-fiction piece, ‘Nothing by Mouth’, was shortlisted in the 2014 Event Magazine Non-Fiction Contest. She is awaiting the results of that competition. Her published work can be viewed at