by Steven Cuffari
It had rained the day before, so the grass was wet. The ground under Diana’s feet squished as she stepped forward to throw a loose bundle of callas onto her mother Zelda’s coffin. She looked up into the cloudy sky and took a deep breath. And then she smiled.
Later in the town center, she got out of her car and walked across the asphalt street in the rain under her umbrella. She was coming straight from the funeral and was dressed all in black except for the green and white floral kerchief covering her head. It was just before noon, and she was getting bread for her lunch from Mimo’s Bakery.
The bakery door bell jingled as she entered.
“Diana Walker. It’s been what? Ten years?” said the woman behind the counter.
“That sounds about right, Mrs. Tedesco,” said Diana, approaching her.
The woman raised her left hand and pointed to her empty ring finger. “It’s Ms. Mulcahy now. Again,” she said.
“You and Mr. Tedesco got divorced? I don’t believe it,” said Diana.
“Actually, he died,” said Ms. Mulcahy.
Diana’s face contorted with perplexity.
“I had wanted a divorce before he died. Kept it a secret for years. After he died, I still wanted a divorce. So I got one,” clarified Ms. Mulcahy.
Diana’s face smoothed out, showing she was impressed. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that. And congratulations!”
Just then, the bakery door bell jingled.
“Oh… my… god…” said the woman who entered.
“Hi Julie,” said Diana.
“Oh, my god, Diana Walker. How long has it been!”
“I was just telling Mrs… Ms. Mulcahy that it’s been about ten years,” Diana replied.
Julie’s face was beaming with delight as the three women looked at each other, smiling. Then her face took on a morose tone. “Oh, Diana. I’m so sorry. I just realized it. Your mother…”
Next was Ms. Mulcahy’s face to turn downward. “Oh, dear, it completely slipped my mind. I haven’t seen your mother in years. It just slipped my mind. And seeing you here…”
Diana didn’t stop smiling and waved off their apologies. “No, please. It’s quite alright. She was not feeling well for a long time. It was her time to go. She had been very aloof these past few years. Even with me,” she said.
Both women bowed their heads, shaking them and spoke in whispers.
“What a shame,” said Ms Mulcahy.
“May she rest in peace,” said Julie.
Diana smiled. “Thank you, ladies. But I really must go now.”
“Oh, really? But how long are you in town?” asked Julie.
“Just for tonight,” replied Diana.
“The bread is on the house, darling,” said Ms. Mulcahy.
“Thank you,” said Diana as she nodded to them.
The bakery door bell jingled as Diana stepped outside.
Julie and Ms. Mulcahy looked at each other and frowned.
Outside, the clouds had since left the sky, and the sun’s rays took away the chill in the air. Diana let the daylight hit her face with her eyes closed. Smiling, she put on her sunglasses and went to her car.
Weeks prior, Diana received a letter at her penthouse apartment in New York City.
The letter read:
You know I haven’t been feeling well for a long time, and I want you to come home for your birthday. I feel I might pass at any moment now. The doctors say I exaggerate, but I can feel it. You know that my mother died before you were born, Diana, as did your father. She was a writer, just like I am, just like you are. But I never got to see her before she died, because I was too busy with work. When I met your father and became pregnant with you, I missed her. I was madly in love with your father. He made my lonely life bearable. And then he was taken from me just days before you arrived. You remind me of him, the way you smile, the way you talk, even though you never met him. He named you, you know. I can still hear him call to you while you were in the womb. I was just a little older than you are right now when I had you. I regret not having a larger family to leave behind for you. I’m 63 now, and it’s your birthday. Please do your old mother this favor, and come see me before I go. I love you.
It was the day before her birthday when she arrived at the town of Lame Toad, Arkansas. She drove her rental down Route 16 past Jove’s Waterfall. She smiled when she remembered the look on Mitch Tanner’s face the first time she let him put his hand down her pants when they were fourteen. The waterfall was their spot. Her mother’s house was just around the bend.
From the outside, the house looked the same. The porch looked a little worn from weather, but its wood didn’t creak beneath her feet when she approached the front door. It was solid as ever. She pulled out her set of keys, which she hadn’t used in years and opened the door at the same time.
“Diana?” called her mother from inside.
“It’s me mother,” she replied.
“Oh, Diana. It’s so good to hear your voice,” her mother said from the other room.
Diana looked around and shut the door behind her, locking it. The foyer was the same too. The mirror in front of the table still had a piece of glass missing in the corner. Her mother had told her many years ago that it was good luck. She took off her shoes and placed them underneath the table, where there was a shoe rack. Her mother’s black, brown and pastel pink shoes lived there. It seemed to Diana that her mother hadn’t bought new shoes since she left for New York, but realized it couldn’t be true. No matter how old she got, her mother was particular about her fashion.
“My darling,” her mother said, appearing in the hallway bolstered by a wooden cane. She was thin, dressed in black, and wearing her favorite kerchief over her head. If she didn’t look so old and sick, Diana would have sworn she had walked out of a picture from her photo album.
“Mother, you didn’t have to get up. Here’ let me help you,” Diana said, going over to her.
When Diana got within arms reach, her mother grabbed her and assaulted her with kisses with as much strength as she could muster. “Thank you so much for coming,” she said. “Happy Birthday.” Just having Diana in her arms seemed to make her stronger.
Diana was surprised at her strength. “Mother, how do you feel? You seem to be in good spirits.”
“Oh, my darling, I am. Because you are here. But it still hurt. My bones ache,” said Zelda. “I’m just so happy you’re here. Come, sit with me in the parlor.”
The living room was just as Diana had remembered it. Filled with curiosities.
“You still have the Etruscan mask from Montegiorgio!” shouted Diana as she helped her mother into the recliner.
“I’ve kept everything. It’s all for you when I pass,” Zelda said.
“Oh, mother, you’re not going to pass. Not for a long time,” replied Diana.
Zelda groaned and asked, “So tell me, my darling, how have you been all these years? Are you happy?”
Diana kept looking around the salon of artifacts, seemingly ignoring the question. She just smiled as her eyes lingered from relic to relic.
“Do you have a man in your life?” Zelda asked. She leaned forward, wincing in pain.
Diana turned to her with an incredulous glare.
Zelda retreated into her chair an inch. “A woman in your life?”
Diana grunted and laughed. “Mother, if I were gay, you would know by now. This isn’t the eighties.”
“I just want to know if you’re happy, my dear,” she replied.
Diana paused to smile, then said, “I’m happy, mother.”
Zelda smiled at her daughter and couldn’t help but let her tears well up.
Diana forced back tears of her own and said, “I’m so sorry I haven’t come back until now.” She reached out to her mother’s face and lowered her head.
“Please don’t cry, my darling,” Zelda said, lifting her daughter’s chin. “I raised you to be strong and independent. Free. If you are happy, then my life’s dream has been fulfilled. My life’s work has been completed.”
For a moment, the women just smiled at each other with tears burgeoning.
Diana couldn’t help but laugh through the tears. “You exaggerate everything, mom!”
“Don’t make me laugh, please,” said Zelda. “It hurts.”
Diana calmed herself and took her mother’s hands.
“I’m tired, my darling,” Zelda said. “Will you help me with my medicine? It helps me to sleep.”
“Of course, mother,” Diana replied.
Zelda pulled out a bottle of pills and handed it to Diana.
“Do you want to go to your room?” she asked.
“No, I just want to rest here for a bit,” Zelda replied.
“A glass of water?” Diana asked.
Zelda nodded and sighed, and relaxed in the recliner. She closed her eyes and smiled as Diana went to the kitchen.
Moments, Diana returned with a glass of water. “Here you go, mother” she said, then opened the bottle of pills.
Zelda took the glass and a pill from her daughter. Her hand shook as she tossed the medicine into her mouth.
Diana guided the glass as her mother tipped her weary head backward washing down the pill.
Zelda let out a breath of relief and let Diana take the glass away from her. “Thank you, my darling. Now sit here and listen to me before I go to sleep.”
Diana sat back down and took her mother’s hands.
Zelda took a moment to catch her breath. “Everything in this house is yours now, my darling. I have made the arrangements with Lucas and his sons. When I pass, all this will go to you.”
“Mother, please, I–”
“Listen to me,” Zelda implored.
Diana kept hold of her mother’s hands.
“Everything here will be yours when I pass. The masks from Le Marche, the statues from Kefalonia, the Persian vases. They are all yours. My treasures… your treasures trace back almost as far as human history. These things are what inspired my mother, what inspired me, what inspired you to become the writers that we are.”
Zelda coughed because of the speed of her speech.
She continued. “But out of all these things, my most prized possession is–”
“Your scarf from Eritrea, I know,” said Diana.
“No. You think you know, my darling. But you have no idea. This kerchief is not some relic. It is a family heirloom,” said Zelda.
Diana couldn’t help her jaw from dropping. “Mother, you shouldn’t say things like that. You’re doctors might assume the worst.”
“I didn’t think you would believe me.” Zelda yawned and stretched her arms the little she could. “But at least honor my wishes and take this kerchief. It has been in our family for millennia.” She took off the kerchief and let her old, graying locks fall to her shoulders.
“Mother please,” said Diana, taking the kerchief in her hands. “You’re worrying me.”
“My darling, let me see how it looks on you and I will trouble you no more with my ramblings. I’m getting sleepy.” She yawned again and forced her eyes to stay open.
Diana hesitated and looked at the kerchief, still holding back her tears. “I don’t understand, but I’ll do it.”
Zelda sighed and smiled. “Thank you, my darling. Let me see you.”
Diana smoothed the kerchief between her hands and folded it. She whipped it around to the back of her head and pulled two corners under her chin and tied it. It felt a little loose, so she tightened it. She looked at her mother and wanted to ask her how it looked, but she suddenly felt tired.
Zelda watched her and smiled. “Everything is going to be okay, my darling.”
A moment later, Diana closed her eyes and passed out.
The room was dark and hazy when Diana woke up. She felt like someone had broken all of her bones and then spread them like butter under her skin. But there was no pain.
She was startled when a shadow moved in front of her in the darkness. She could barely see, but as the figure came closer, she recognized her own face. She was facing what seemed to her twin, who was wearing her mother’s kerchief. Diana felt as if a great weight was crushing her chest as she tried to scream. But her lungs would not power it.
“Oh, my darling,” said the other Diana. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Diana managed to take several slow breaths. “Who… are you?”
“Diana, Diana. My darling. My name is old and irrelevant. You always thought I exaggerated, but I never did. I underplayed it. You could never imagine the life I’ve led. But you… you’ve got to accept that this is the end.”
“No…” Diana whispered. She was using her last bits of strength to speak.
The other Diana closed her eyes and clasped her hands in prayer. She looked down at Diana and smiled. “Thank you, Diana for the life gift that you have given me. Please believe me that I’ve loved you like a daughter. My darling.”
Diana felt an unstoppable burning in her chest. She took a hard, painful breath and whispered, “Mother…” before she slumped into the recliner.
The other Diana looked down at Diana and smiled.
She pulled the phone out of her pocket and dialed the hospital. After a few rings, someone picked up.
“Please send an ambulance to 25 Windy Trace. My mother, Zelda Walker, has just passed away.”
Thank you for reading Dear Diana, You’re Gonna Die, a story about family secrets that take on a very strange shape. A similar tale of mine is My Brother, Baumstein. Go read it and let me know what you think.