First Draft: Bottle Lady
Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.
But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.
I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!
Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.
Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.
I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.
After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up. I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.
So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.
I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…
Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.
I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.
“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.
I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.
“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”
Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”
My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.
Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.
I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.
I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.
While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.
I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.
We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.
The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.
She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.
She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.
She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.
The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.
Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.
The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.
There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.
She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.
It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”
“Go to hell!”
“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”
“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”
More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.
The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.
With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.
“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.
She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.
I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.
With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.
I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.
They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.
Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.
I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.
I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.
Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.
I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.