The Reflected Forest is a series told in parts as posts in this blog, if you haven’t read the parts before this one, you can check them out here:
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1.5 The Reflected Forest – Sanford Coates
I stared at the ceiling of my hotel room, dark and void of the flashes of passing headlights in the night of this tiny town. I felt awful. After going back to the hotel after the bar, I passed out for an hour or so. I woke up, confused and shaken. I felt that something had woken me, a noise, something close – in my hotel room. There was nothing there, of course, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t alone. Even after prowling the small room, checking in the closet, under the bed, and behind the shower curtain. My mind wouldn’t let me sink back in the oblivion of sleep.
My body was exhausted, and I was definitely feeling the effects of all the beer I had had, having officially passed from being comfortably drunk to viciously hungover.
My stomach churned and my head was pounding. All I wanted was to fall asleep to drink off the pain but my mind was a whirlpool. Faint memories of my uncle swirled against the morbid tales I’d heard about the house I now owned, crashed against my cousin’s harsh revelation. I turned my head to glance at the clock, wincing at the jolt of pain from the left temple. 4:38 a.m.. I rolled up into a sitting position, dropping my feet over the edge of the bed. My intention was to get a glass of water. Instead, my stomach revolted, and I dashed to the bathroom in the dark, gripping the sides of the toilet basin and puked. It felt like my body was forcibly ejecting each and every single pint of beer I’d had that night.
When the only thing coming out of my mouth were thread of bile and my belly had stopped contracting, I pulled myself up and hunched over the sink, drinking tepid tap water straight from the faucet. After a minute, I splashed water on my face, dried using one of the starchy hotel towels, and stumbled back into the main room. I stumbled against my bag, which sat in front of the side table. I knelt and dug through the clothes, finding my toiletries bag, and pulled it out. I opened the travel bottle of ibuprofen and swallowed two.
I had given up on sleep entirely. I couldn’t stand to be in the dark anymore so I turned on all the lights. The room came with a complimentary coffee maker with three small packets of grounds. I filled the machine, plugged it in, and turned it on. The smell of the cheap coffee that wafted out of the packet when I opened it was refreshing. I set up the filter and left it to do its thing.
I walked to the window. The parking lot was lit up with a single, weak security light that only lit up a far corner. Beyond that, night reigned supreme. The streets were empty, the streetlights casting pathetic yellow pools onto the pavement. Storefronts were dark, all the bars were closed, the entire town was asleep.
Behind me, the coffee maker bubbled in the familiar way all coffee makers do. On my way back to the bed, I grabbed the journal and my phone. I sent a brief text to Andrea, assuring her that I was okay and with a little lie that there was only spotty coverage in Belham. Being sent at five in the morning, I didn’t know how much she’d believe that I was alright. As a final thought, I sent a second text: “I love you.”
The coffee gave its last glug and I poured myself a cup, adding in a generous amount of sugar and half and half to ease the damage the caffeine would do to my sensitive stomach. I made myself comfortable in the bed, propped up against the two pillows, with the coffee on the bedside table beside me, and the journal open in my lap.
I turned past the page with the family tree, past the very first page that I had already read and started.
I must stop what is happening at any cost. My name is Sanford Coates and I am fifteen years old. My mother was Mary-Louise Coates, formerly Mary-Louise du Monte.
My father never told her the pain and suffering she would experience by marrying him. My mother was a beautiful, kind, loving woman who deserved better than what happened to her. She always sought to learn, teaching herself to read and write in the very few hours they had had between chores on the farm. She learned knitting and embroidery. She knew how to play the organ.
Now, as I sit here, my hand stained with the blood of my father and my mother only twenty-four hours cold in the grave, before the constable comes, I will write my testimony.
To start, I must go back to when my parents met. My mother was fourteen and poor. She was the fourth daughter of a family of seven, living on a farm in Louisiana. My father met her at a county fair. The Coates were there on business. He was twenty. My mother told me that he was complete gentleman and she admitted to being slightly taken in by his expensive clothes and cultured accent. He courted her for only a week and, on the last day the Coates were in town, proposed. Her parents were more than happy to have one less mouth to feed and to know that their daughter was going to be taken care of.
From the things my mother told me about my paternal grandparents, they hadn’t approved. Regardless, my mother and father were married in a small ceremony at my mother’s church. Then my father took her back to his home.
The Coates home is – was – a stately beast, out of place amongst the pitiful, struggling farms. A few miles away squats what they call a town around here – Bell’s Hamlet. My mother told me it used to be even smaller, housing only a general store and church. At the time of my writing, it has grown. Not by any amount large enough to impress anyone, but it has a police station, a tailor’s, a few shops, and a bed-and-breakfast.
It is here where my father took my mother to live the rest of her life. The Coates home was multi-generational. My grandparents were living there, as were two uncles and an aunt. It’s lucky the original Coates who built this rambling abomination had been so ambitious, or there would have been no room for more.
As such, the three stories were filled with the family. My mother and father had a room on the third floor. I was born when my mother was sixteen. My two brothers were born when she was seventeen – twins, weak of mind and body. My sister was a stillborn when my mother was eighteen. I have included an entry I copied from my mother’s diary.
“It had been a dark, gray day. The night before, there had been blood on the moon – a sign of misfortune to come. Since I followed my husband to his home three years ago, there weighs a heavy oppression over my body. I am not unfamiliar to toil or to labour. I am a strong girl, something my mother and father have always told me. I worked and lived on a farm. I was happy and healthy. In this house, there is a poison. My first son escaped the effects and was born healthy. My second and third sons did not. They will be broken creatures for the whole of their lives. My daughter, sweet, beautiful thing, is dead.
Now the doctor tells me I will bear no more children. He tells me he does not even know if I will survive the night. I write this on my birthing bed, on my possible death bed. If God can hear me then I pray for him to show mercy. I must protect my three sons. Let me live so I may take them from this place.”
My mother survived, barely. She never took me or my brothers away though. My father didn’t let her. She hid most of her inner conflict, her pain, from us. I remember only a happy woman, a devoted wife, and a doting mother. My father was a cold and distant man. I have no idea what she saw in him and, near the end, neither did she. This is an entry from my mother’s journal, when she was twenty-four and had – unbeknownst to her – only a few years left to live:
“Edgar is a different man now. Is it because I am now barren? His hands are rough and hurtful in the night, so much so I can barely stand it. I never thought I would see blood on my bedsheets again after the wedding night. A part of me thinks he must enjoy the pain he causes me – that he is punishing me for our dead daughter, for my failings as a woman.
His father passed a month ago and my husband is now the lord of the house. He neglects the children and has attention only for the business. He spends many hours in the root cellar. I am not allowed there and he keeps it locked with a key around his neck. Is this the same man I married? He seems like a complete stranger.
I think there must be something in the walls of this place. A mould or sickness. Edgar’s mother is ailing, her skin is like silk stretched across bone, and she grins all the time so I think she must be quite mad too. I try to keep the children away from her so she won’t frighten them with her ramblings and random outbursts. Edgar hasn’t noticed his mother’s decline so I try to make her as comfortable as possible in her last days, despite the bruises and scratches she leaves on my arms.”
I remember my grandmother. She died laughing in her bed half a year after my mother wrote that entry. She looked like a living skeleton and often roamed the halls of the house at night, tapping at doors. I opened my bedroom door once and looked up into a hovering pale spectral visage and a bright yellow grin. She knelt and gripped my head in her claw-like hands. I had wanted to scream, to cry, but I was too scared.
I remember what she said to me that night. I’ll remember it for the rest of my days up until the noose snaps my neck.
“We will be well met, child, in the valley of the reflected forest.”
Then the wretched hag stood and wandered back down the hall to the stairs, where she descended into the shadows. I never told my mother about this. When I brought it up to my father, his eyes had widened and his mouth had twisted into an ugly snarl, then he took the strap to me and drew blood until my mother heard my screams and saved me.
As I grew and the years passed, my mother withered away. Once a strapping young woman with a sparkle in her eyes, she became thin, wilting, and easily startled. She was only twenty-nine when she had her first fit. I was fourteen and standing next to her in the kitchen. She’d had something important to tell me and had pulled me away from my studies, into the kitchen, which was empty at the time. She had been gripping my shoulders, her face inches from mine. It’s hard to remember exactly what she said. Most of that memory is distorted by the fear I’d experienced when I thought my mother was dying. She said something like: “I saw your father, he was in hundreds of places at once, next to the pale tree. That man here, it’s not him. It’s not your father.” Those aren’t the exact words, her exact words are lost to my memories, but they are close enough.
In that moment, her hands had tightened painfully on my shoulders and I had cried out. Her face had crumpled, then went slack. She fell to the kitchen floor and began to shake, her hands curled into claws, and her head pounding on the wood.
My great-aunt Dorothy came to my rescue. She of the sad, watery cow eyes and dowdy dresses. She’d put the spine of the book she’d ben reading in my mother’s mouth to prevent her from biting her tongue off and had held her down until the worst of the tremors were gone. My great-aunt’s face had remained serene during this whole thing, as if she had seen this before, as if it were normal.
After my mother’s convulsion was over, my great-aunt bade me to take my mother up to her bedroom where she could rest. At fourteen, I was able to carry her with ease. It was as though she were but a husk. It was then that I found and took her diary. I had a premonition. The sudden knowledge that I had to protect my mother’s thoughts, her memory, her soul. This was her last entry:
“The madness of the Coates is an illness. Like the sores that spread from tree to tree, eventually killing them. Like the foaming sickness that gets into a dog and turns it against its master, so has my husband turned against his family. I pray for our salvation every night but there is no place for God in this house. My hair is falling out, I am losing my teeth. My monthlies have disappeared but, instead, I cough blood into my handkerchief. God has forsaken this family and He has forsaken me. I took the key from his neck as he lay sleeping, I went into the cellar, I went into the secret room. I saw him there. I saw all of him. In the cobwebs of purgatory, I saw them all.”
From that moment in the kitchen, my mother stopped speaking. Her eyes would stare at the wall, unfocussed. Her hands lay limp in her lap, void of the knitting and sewing she used to love. My great-aunt tended to her and shooed my brothers and I away if we spent too long bothering her. My father neglected her, treated her as though she were a piece of furniture to be moved out of the way when needed. He refused to summon the doctor and beat me for saying I would get the physician myself.
My mother lived that way for a year before she died. My father said she died in her sleep. The bruises on her throat told a different story.