When Sunduq was four she got stuck in the hope chest in her grandmother’s bedroom. Her family looked for her for hours, eventually calling the authorities, who said, “Most children who go missing are actually inside their own houses.” They came to conduct a home search and Sunduq’s mother found her in the chest, which had a self-locking mechanism and could not be opened from the inside.
“Why didn’t you shout for us?” said Sunduq’s mother. Her face was wet with tears and angry relief. She gathered Sunduq up into her arms. They did not cuddle frequently, and to Sunduq it felt almost worth it to be closely nestled into the musky warmth of her mother’s neck. Sunduq was quiet. She did not explain that the thing in the chest made shouting an impossibility.
Sunduq’s grandmother was more straightforwardly angry. “You had no right to go in here,” she said. “Why was you in my bedroom anyway? What did you go in for?”
“It doesn’t matter about that now,” said Sunduq’s mother. She looked at the authorities who had come in the door behind them. “Just as long as she’s safe.”
“Yes,” said Sunduq’s grandmother, but she said it for the authorities and Sunduq was unconvinced. She was not surprised when, at the end of their visit, Sunduq’s grandmother pulled her into a harsh embrace and whispered, “Tell anyone what you saw and I’ll kill you,” into her ear.
She had no doubt that her grandmother would kill her. She was a frightening woman, known for her violence and for threatening people with a replica of the sword from The Bodyguard which somehow she acquired at a police auction. Her grandmother’s teeth were pointy and she had the sign of the malfeasant, the snake swallowing its own tail, tattooed onto the shaved bit of her head which she covered with wigs during the day but which Sunduq spied one night when she had gone down to the kitchen for a glass of water when they were staying at her grandmother’s for the summer holidays and she found her grandmother bare-headed and bare-chested, breasts gleaming with the glycerine she force-fed into the stove-whipped shea butter they all wore, at the table, drinking lilac wine with somebody that Sunduq could not see and did not know.
When she was five, Sunduq made a pact with herself. She would tell people what she had seen in her grandmother’s hope chest, but only when her grandmother was dead. This took a shockingly long time. Sunduq was forty-five by the time the woman, then one hundred and twenty-three, or one hundred and twenty-five, depending on which birth certificate you went by, died of hemlock poisoning after a dinner party held at a private library in central London.
Due to the hemlock poisoning, the body was not released for burial for quite some time. “I just want closure,” said Sunduq’s mother.
Sunduq understood. She was anxious for the body to be released as well, so she could tell everyone what she had seen in her grandmother’s hope chest.
“We’re still working on the cause of death,” the coroner said.
“She was over one hundred and twenty years old. Can’t we chalk it up to old age?” said Sunduq.
“It might well be that,” the coroner said. “It might well be that.”
It was not that.
Everyone who was at that dinner party had now mysteriously vanished. The library had closed. It said for refurbishment but Sunduq felt midwinter, when private libraries hosted most of their events, the candlelit reading rooms, the solstice sleepover, the Chalknight recitals, was a strange time to do this. There was hemlock in her blood and in her hair analysis.
And then her body went missing.
Sunduq’s grandmother had sou-sou’d her way into putting down a deposit for her house and husbanded her way into paying the mortgage off completely. About a third of her husbands would be there tonight, at her house, at the wake, to watch over a body that was not there.
Sunduq’s Aunt So was the first to arrive while Sunduq and her mother were still cleaning. Sunduq was self-conscious in her old leggings with three ladders in the crotch and panties a different color showing through. Aunt So was a glistening sugar tong of a woman, with cleavage that embarrassed Sunduq with memories of how she used to want to dip her fingers in there, as a child, like it was honey. Aunt So was not her biological aunt, she told herself. She was Sunduq’s grandmother’s cousin’s child, extended family made nuclear through adoption when Aunt So’s mother disappeared into the hot rain one summer evening.
Aunt So sat on the sofa and took a swash of rum from the hip flask she kept in her bag. “You ever seen animals slaughtered?”
“No,” said Sunduq.
Aunt So made a noise. She said, “The difference between how you can slaughter one animal in your backyard but you need a whole warehouse and special people with special jackets to do it on a large scale, is that the animals know. It’s not the sounds from the ones getting killed. It’s the sounds the others make when they see what’s going to happen to them. Not pigs. Pigs don’t care. But the other animals. They know. They know what’s coming. Then you leading them to their execution and they are terrified about it. Pure fear. You can smell it.” She rubbed her thumb and a middle finger together as if she was smelling aromatic herbs. “You can smell it in this house. It’s a particular stench. That’s how I know she’s here. I could smell it as soon as I came in.”
Aunt So looked at her. “Your grandmother.”
“In person. Her body is here.”
Sunduq didn’t think so. “We cleaned the whole house,” she said. “I think we would have come across her.”
Aunt So laughed. Not a real laugh. “Those cleaning products gone to your head,” she said. “You think you a detective now. That you know all the places people can hide a body in an old house like this.” She tapped two of the walls with her red nails that were real but as long as extensions.
Sunduq said, “Maybe there are other people’s fears you can smell.”
“What you scared of?” said Aunt So. “You pregnant?”
They all laughed. Sunduq had a publishing deal for What To Expect When You’re Expecting to Never Expect, a how-to guide for Black women who were voluntarily childless and navigating heterosexual dating and family dynamics. Her relationship with Cline had been a surprise to her, and the publishers merely asked that she kept that piece of her personal life under wraps until the publicity was over and done with lest her bisexuality make her appear less credible as an author.
Sunduq knew she had to say something otherwise she would never say it. “I’m scared to tell you what I saw in Grandma’s chest,” she said. “The hope chest. When I was four.”
Her mother stared at her. “What makes you think you saw anything in there?” she said. “That chest is empty.”
Aunt So snorted. Sunduq’s mother made a throat slit gesture at Aunt So when she thought Sunduq wasn’t looking.
“I saw that,” said Sunduq. “So you know what’s in there.”
“I know nothing,” said Sunduq’s mother.
Sunduq was awash with feelings. Hot anger was the most prominent one, creeping its way up her neck, but there was also something like shame, a cluster knot in her throat, and she had to press her tongue hard against the roof of her mouth to keep from crying it out. They had known all along. She had been burdened with a secret that was not really a secret. She could have been talking about it all of this time. Her grandmother would not have killed her. She shrugged. “Let’s go up there and see.”
“No,” said her mother.
Sunduq began the ascent of the stairs. She had no game plan. She did not know what she would do once she was confronted with the hope chest. Cleaning her grandmother’s bedroom today was the first time she had set foot in it since the time when she was four years old.
It was Aunt So who threw open the lid of the hope chest. Sunduq’s grandmother’s body lay in there, folded, breathing shallowly.
“Of course,” said Aunt So. She said it to herself but everyone could hear. “Of course.”
Sunduq’s grandmother’s body was a blur. It was impossible to see what was happening, but they all knew what was happening. Her cells were being renewed, over and over, far too quickly. On the bottom of the hope chest was a thick shed of skin that had already been discarded. It was floating atop a sac of amniotic fluid.
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