Old Harry’s Daughters by Julianna Waters
In “Old Harry’s Daughters,” Julianna Waters tells a searing story in a delicate triptych of voices. Three sisters, dealing with the aftermath of the death of their abusive father, each speak to their harrowing experiences and their coping mechanisms, the persistence of their trauma, and their attempts to heal. Each voice is a crack radiating from a central, shattering wound.
Oldest sister Tansy speaks candidly to us from the rehab facility where her drug counselor tells her that she needs “to accept that life is unmanageable” and move on from the horrors of her father’s sexual abuse. Tansy, though, is quick to correct the record: it was her father’s behavior that was “unmanageable.” Middle sister Liberty swims meditative laps in a public pool, posing that essential question at the heart of their father’s passing: “How is it that you can hate someone but still feel gutted when they die?” Youngest sister Jolee’s section is entirely memory, punctuated by the way she uses color to process emotion. When questioning her father’s actions leads to punishment, she describes it as, “That day I tasted black. It tasted like an empty tin can, like oblivion.” The only salve for this oblivion is the sisters united, curled around each other—an image from Jolee’s memory of childhood resistance.
In her author’s note, Waters explains that her writing is a process of “lifting veils, one after the other, until the story emerges and its greater truths are revealed.” At the center of “Old Harry’s Daughters,” once all the veils have been lifted, resides the struggle against a victim’s sense of solitude, and the loneliness that intense trauma engenders. In a stunning final scene, the Tansy of Jolee’s childhood memory claims that a nearby house is haunted, only for Liberty to correct her:
“No, don’t say that, Tansy.”
“It’s just lonely.”
Thus, trauma becomes a ghost held at bay by togetherness—safety as a thing only found in numbers, among those who also understand pain and the fight against it. “The one thing I didn’t do, couldn’t do, was let it go” is how Waters describes her devotion to telling this story, to inventing and reinventing it, but it is exactly this degree of devotion that these sisters show for each other, as they “shatter and rebuild,” or fail to.
“I love them, pure and simple” is how Waters ultimately describes her connection to Tansy, Liberty, and Jolee. As readers, we can’t help but love them too, as well as the lush physical detail of each of their separate worlds and voices: Liberty’s hands “like blurred gray hearts” as she moves through the pool. Tansy in a bar “with high-legged stools, their cushions made of fake leather the color of blood.” Jolee “nestled like a robin’s egg” between her sisters—briefly, mercifully safe. “Old Harry’s Daughters” is a story that immerses the reader in the tough, unrelenting reality of trauma, but doesn’t forget that even in the midst of it, a forsythia’s “luminous yellow flowers” still bloom, vivid and bright. —CRAFT
Content Warning—child sexual abuse
My sister, Liberty, tells me I need to exercise, that it cures all ills. Well, I don’t see how swimming cures hers. All it does is dry out her hair. Jolee, my youngest sister, tells me to read more. “I read plenty,” I say. “Facebook is reading.” She rolls her eyes. And what do they know about curing my ills? I’m neck-deep in my third stint trying to get clean. My drug counselor tells me I need to accept that life is unmanageable, find a Higher Power, turn it over. Well, the only way I’ll believe that clay-brained higher-power nonsense is if he or she or it gets me out of this prison called “rehab” where the inmates are called “residents” and we’re kept under lock and key due to the supposed danger we pose to ourselves or others. Case in point: I share a room with a sixty-year-old lush who drove her car into a decrepit shed and killed the two goats inside. Imagine minding your own goat-business, munching old beer cans, boxes, then bam—crunched by a rusty Ford Falcon. That’s being unmanageable, a danger to yourself or others. Nothing like me. I mean, I understand why a judge might think so, but, it’s not like I took an ax to Dad when he was alive. It was his coffin, for god’s sake, not him. A splinter nicked his cheek. I wasn’t aiming for it.
Still, the staff here must think I’m some kind of shit-for-brains that can’t figure how far south my life has fallen. Well, it’s no mystery to yours truly. My life’s been a regular three-ring nut-fest from day one, like when my sisters and I were kids. Liberty was nine, tall for her age, and lean with long, coffee-colored hair. Jolee, a nearsighted bookworm even then, who couldn’t have been more than seven. I was twelve going on fifty. Even then the flesh under my eyes was puffy from lack of sleep. I had short hair with long bangs that concealed my eyes.
Anyway, my dad would pick us up from school, drop Liberty off at the pool and Jolee, the littlest, at our grandmother’s place until my mom picked her up after work. After my sisters were gone, he’d turn to me, his left elbow resting on the opened window, and say in his Texan twang, “Isn’t this nice? A little special time just you and me?”
“Special time” meant taking me to The Big Horn Bar and Grill down on Western Main in Downtown Grand Junction. That was before the town became such a trash heap. You know what I mean. Back when the street cleaners swept the asphalt every week and the salesladies at Little Joe’s Shoes for Children gave out Pop Rocks to every kiddo who tried on a pair of KangaROOS. It was a time when parents could take their kids to a bar in the afternoon.
We’d pull into the parking lot behind the bar, then Dad would slide out of the truck, walk around to my side, open the door, and I’d get out. He’d grab my hand, lead me to the front door, an oak door, hefty, with a porthole dark and high at the top. Before he opened it, he’d wink at me and say, “Don’t tell your mother, Tansy, or I’ll tan your hide.” Then he and I, him holding my hand and tugging me along, would weave our way through a room of empty dinner tables, and then, under a stucco archway, into a darker room full of little tables. At the far end was a bar fringed with high-legged stools, their cushions made of fake leather the color of blood. All the tables were candlelit, but the room’s main source of illumination came from behind the bar through a wall of bottles where the light mingled with the booze and spread shades of amber throughout the room.
The bartender’s name was Jack, or maybe John. Maybe Jerry. He knew us, knew my dad mostly, and lifted his head then nodded in our direction when we walked in. I sat down beside my father on one of those high-legged chairs dangling my feet and kicking my heels against the wood. Jack gave me a pen and I drew pictures of horses on napkins. And he served me free Shirley Temples like I was a real customer, always asking if I wanted an extra cherry. I watched as my dad got drunk, starting with beer and ending with bourbon. His laugh became easier and longer with each swallow, his voice louder, unrecognizable, almost.
After a few hours, Dad would slap the bar with the palm of his hand and say something about seeing Jack-John-Jerry next time, by god, and come on, Tansy, we better beat feet before your mother rattles both our chains. He’d take my hand, pull me out the way we came in, cross the parking lot to the Chevy, then push me against the door and kiss me full on the mouth. He’d press his index finger hard and square to the middle of my forehead and say, “Not one fucking word.”
That, my friend, is what you call unmanageable.
I watch my shadow-self cruise the bottom of the pool. My hands look like blurred gray hearts that pull my body forward to the rhythm of my breath: stroke, stroke, breathe. My water-world, my temple, my haven is nearly silent except for the bubbles of my exhales. With every side-breath, I peruse the pool through my goggles with the vigilance of a distance swimmer.
I am partnered in my lane with another swimmer, though I am nearly oblivious to her presence. We swim in opposite directions, each of us pushing through the gentle wake of the other’s kick. The pool is full of swimmers like us, water-babies long graduated from the swim teams of our childhood. Our communal kicking whips the water into hundreds of small, haphazard waves. When I cruise on my belly, I am mindful only of the light’s reflection in turquoise water. When I swim on my back, it is under a glorious and pale sliver-moon hanging ethereal in the morning sky.
I feel grateful for the fatigue as it oozes into my muscles, the way it quiets my mind. At sixteen hundred yards, my breath is so deep that I need only breathe every five strokes. Water that felt cold when I dropped in now feels like a warm, wet extension of my body. I am no longer the intruder in an alien element. I am family to it.
At eighteen hundred yards, I stop, hug the pool’s pouting lip and dangle there. It’s May 15, the first day of outdoor swimming, a holy day for me. I wear a new suit, black with orchids outlined in blue and purple across my body. Modest cut. I splurged for a pedicure and had my toes painted blue. And I cut my hair, but not for my annual sacrifice of curls to spring, but because my father died.
It was Jolee who called and told me. “He’s dead,” she whispered. I dropped to my knees. How is it that you can hate someone but still feel gutted when they die? I hauled myself off the floor, went to the kitchen and found the scissors next to the can opener. Then I twisted hunks of hair into my fist and cut as I shouted, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you….” Over and over again, “Fuck you.” After, my hair lay on the ground around my feet like seagrass, but my scalp was free of him.
Tansy called my haircut a placebo to an act of violence. “You just wanted to be the one who pulled the plug, Libby,” she said in her smoker’s voice. “Cutting your hair like that only hurt you.” She sighed. “Yet another bitter pill to swallow.” She cupped her hand on my shoulder with such impossible tenderness that I sobbed. “Haven’t we swallowed enough?” She pulled me to her, my eldest sister, pulled me with her too-skinny arms, hugged me close to her too-skinny body.
“Seriously,” she said, “get thee to a hairdresser. He wasn’t worth it.”
Today, however, I drop back into the water, exhale as I sink, then curl and push off into the breaststroke. I am thinking of my father dying alone. I am thinking of childhood when Jolee slept beside me in our dark room, my body closest to the edge of the bed while keeping her tucked away next to the wall. I am thinking of Tansy across the room in her own bed, the smell of bourbon and father and fear. Her tiny cries. The light from the door opening when he left.
Then I am just swimming again, pulling, pushing, bobbing for breath. I kick wide and my foot hits the fleshy hip of my lane-mate. I pull myself up. “Sorry!” I shout above the cacophony. But she keeps going. It’s understood. Everyone gets kicked. Everyone gets bruised. Everyone keeps swimming.
When I couldn’t run fast enough to evade him, I learned to think of colors. All kinds of color: dark, mottled, pale. Or colors so bright they made me squint. I learned to marvel, silently and to myself, at the way colors entered my mind without using my eyes. I could taste them without using my tongue, or moving my head. When you are forced to share territory with a beast, what else is there but imagination? What else can you do, a child alone with him, without shelter, without protection? He was so very big, my dad. When he lay on me, there was no air. There was no “I,” no Jolee. There was only his breath, the silence I invented, and the taste of color. When he rolled away, he cried as if I’d hurt him. He said it was wrong, that we should never do it again, then turned his head hard toward me, his eyes mean. “Never again,” he repeated.
One time I said, “We?” He cuffed my temple with the back of his hand. I didn’t ask again. That day I tasted black. It tasted like an empty tin can, like oblivion. When he told me to say I was sorry, I did. The words were brown and thick on my tongue. They tasted like quicksand. I was so very small. And Tansy was somewhere and Liberty was somewhere and Mother was somewhere, too. “Keeping us in bacon and grits,” my father said.
Those were the days he brought me straight home from school, the days he gave Granma “a break.” “It’s hard on the old gal,” he said, “to take care of a live-wire like you every afternoon. What did I learn in kindergarten today, sugar plum?”
I ran. I did. Sometimes I made it to the bathroom where I locked the door. Sometimes he talked sweet so I’d unlock it, sometimes he pounded on it. “I’ll get an ax,” he hollered, but never did. Then the day came that he picked the lock, and the door flew open, then I was on the sofa underneath him with Mike Douglas singing on the TV. From nowhere Tansy and Libby came laughing through the front door, showing up just as oblivion filled my mouth, and they screamed sharp as knives. Tansy balled her fist and hit the beast: his head, his back and legs, his face as he turned around and when he grabbed her, she bit him. Libby scratched his face. He held Tansy by her hair and she screamed, “Run!” And we did.
Liberty pulled me out through the screen door. It slammed behind us as my feet found my legs and my arms found the earth when I fell, but then Tansy, who had gotten away, was running hard behind me, her face bloodied but smiling as she picked me up. My legs curled around her waist, the bruising inside me throbbed like umber, and the jostle of my head spiked impossible pink that hurt my eyes. But I was safe. A pale, blue exhaustion leaked from my ears onto Tansy’s shoulder as I swallowed gulps of lavender.
They took me to an abandoned house where no one would find us, Tansy said. “The old guy who lived here died.” The yard was thick with high grass, dandelions and forget-me-nots. Forsythia grew along the fence, its branches covered in luminous yellow flowers. Jasmine had laid claim to the metal gate, and we were invisible. I was nestled like a robin’s egg between my sisters, leaning against a wall covered with the curled tongues of peeling blue paint. Tansy said the house was haunted. Liberty giggled. “No, don’t say that, Tansy.”
“It’s just lonely.”
JULIANNA WATERS lives in Hood River, Oregon, with her husband and two yappy dogs. She’s been published in Falling Star Magazine, The Portlander, Four x Four and has two stories forthcoming in the anthology, Dark and Stormy. She’s an award-winning singer-songwriter, has recorded two albums, and was showcased in Oregon Literary Review and Songwriter Magazine. Julianna holds an MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop and worships at the temple of mystery. Find her on Instagram @oldcrowspen.
Featured image by Artem Verbo, courtesy of Unsplash.