The Sad Lady
Some people will tell you it’s just a trick of the light. Or they say you have a good imagination. They sometimes laugh. I don’t know why they laugh. I used to think I was special because I paid attention to what I saw out of the corner of my eye. I thought my eyes were special. It turns out my eyes aren’t special at all. It’s my interpretation of what I see that’s special.
Interpretation is a long word. I got it from my therapist, Marcia. Marcia is thirty, but she is still OK to talk to. She is tiny and quiet and uses long words. It’s not that I don’t know any long words; I just think in small ones. Besides, using long words makes you stand out, and I haven’t wanted to stand out in a long time.
Miss Campbell called my mom when I drew a picture of a demon. She said it was a demon, anyway: I don’t know what it was. It was blue, and it had a long nose and bright green eyes and a little fat body that almost didn’t matter, and wings. That was five years ago, a long time. That was the last time I stood out. I drew the picture in class because we were meant to draw something we’d seen on our way to school. Miss Campbell said there were no such things as little blue men (I didn’t even know if it was a man) with wings and I did not really see it, and I was a liar. I argued with her, because I had seen it, and it was blue, and it did have wings, and I was not a liar. Everybody laughed at me, and then Jennifer Miller put chewing gum in my hair. My mom picked me up from school early. I had to have my hair cut, and then we went to see Marcia. I’ve been seeing Marcia once a week since then. Marcia listens to me, but I don’t think she believes me any more than Miss Campbell did. She says it’s no use trying to convince other people, either. She says other people don’t interpret reality the way I do. Like I said, I used to think my eyes were special. Now I just think I am special.
Sometimes, I try not to see them. It hasn’t worked yet, but Marcia thinks it will, if I am diligent. So every morning I try not to look at the mushroom men on the lawn. I try not to look for the garden dragons, but it’s hard. I like the garden dragons. There are two red ones and one yellow one. When I turn left down the street to go to the bus stop, I don’t look for the lady on the purple horse, even though she sometimes waves at me. I try not to look. I don’t stare out the window and see if she is catching up with the bus, and I try to ignore the black cloud that looks like a bat and floats over the bus driver’s head. When I get to school I don’t wave at the school dragon; he is always in a bad mood, anyway. The school dragon is blue, and I call him Grumpy because he is. And no matter how much I like somebody, I don’t tell them about the things I see or how long I’ve been seeing them.
I used to see fairies round my bed when I was really little, five or six. They never did anything much. I knew they were fairies because they were little and sparkly. They never talked to me or gave me wishes like in stories. They didn’t play pranks or do magic. I tried to write stories about them a couple of times, and the teacher said I was very imaginative. Then she asked why the fairies didn’t do anything magical. I said because they were boring fairies. She said fairies could never be boring, so I asked her if she knew any. I got sent to the office for being impertinent. Impertinent is another big word. It means rude.
Around Christmas last year, I started seeing the sad lady. The sad lady has long brown hair and glasses. She is quite fat, and sometimes she tries to talk to me, but I can’t understand what she is saying. She looks like an even fatter version of my aunt Rose, who is the fattest person I know. Everywhere I went, I started seeing her. Sometimes she cries, and sometimes she just looks really sad. She is annoying, especially when she taps on the bus window. She chases away the lady on the purple horse who used to race with the bus and smile at me, and the mushroom man is afraid of her, and there is never a dragon in the garden when she’s around. I don’t like her.
Marcia told me this week that your thirteenth birthday is like a turning point. She said people used to be considered adults at fourteen, so I had a lot of learning to do. She said I needed to think hard about what world I wanted to live in, because it would get harder and harder to live in two worlds as I got older. Marcia thinks there is a me who lives in a fantasy world and a me who lives in the real world. She thinks the dragons and the mushroom men and the fairies and the sad lady all are part of some fantasy I want to live in. I ask her, if they’re part of some fantasy world, why are they all right here? And why would I want to live in a world with only them? They never even talk to me, and the sad lady chases them all away, anyway.
The only person who understands the things I see is my dad. My dad is away from home a lot, but when he comes home, we sit on the couch together and he asks me what all I saw when he was gone, and I tell him. Daddy never says I am making it up or lying. He just asks me what they all look like, and what they are wearing, and whether they are nice or mean. We used to make up stories about them together, but my dad says I am too old for stories now.
When my dad came home from this really long business trip yesterday, the sad lady was there. She kept staring at me and my dad. She started crying, and all the tears turned into beads. Then she took a needle and thread out of her pocket and started threading the beads on it. I told my dad about her. I said it was stupid how the fairies couldn’t do any magic but the sad lady could. She knew I was watching her: I could tell because she stared right at me, and she put out her arms like she wanted to hug me. I snuggled up to my dad and he put his arm around my shoulder and told me he missed me while he was in Pittsburgh. He said because it was Saturday we would have some people over to play cards and I could play if I wanted. I like playing cards with my dad and his friends. We play spades and pinochle and drink coffee. And now that my brother is gone to college, I get to sit next to the snake cage.
Last night I got sent to bed before everybody was gone. The stupid sad lady was in my bedroom, sitting on my dresser, threading more tear beads onto this thread. It finally dawned on me when I looked at her again that she isn’t actually as fat as my aunt Rose. She just has strings of clear beads wrapped around her body at all angles, so many of them that they make her seem huge. She’s almost like a normal human except for that. I wonder if her tears are like armour, some kind of protection. Maybe that’s why the others are afraid of her. I have a dream that she is not so bad and she talks to me and tells me that life is OK even if you’re the sad lady, and she puts a string of sparkling crystal beads around my neck.
This morning, I wake up and my sister is sitting on my bed even though she doesn’t live with us any more. My mom is sitting on my bed, too. Something feels wrong. My mom is all flattened out and grey, like a paper doll mom.
“Polly, Daddy died last night,” my sister says. “He had a heart attack.” My mom looks at her hands.
I nod to show I understand, but I can’t say anything. My sister tries to hug me, but I just can’t. My sister says, “Get dressed, and we’ll have some breakfast, OK? There’s a lot to do, and there will be lots of people coming over.” I nod again, and they leave me alone.
I close the door to my room. The sad lady is sitting on the foot of my bed, crying her eyes out and collecting beads with a skirt so covered with them already it’s hard to tell which ones are strung and which ones are not. She reaches out a hand and the little yellow garden dragon jumps up onto the bed. She pushes him toward me, and it’s almost cool because I have never petted a dragon before, but my father is dead, so nothing can ever be cool again. The dragon tells me his name is Sunshine because he’s yellow, but he thinks that’s a crappy name and I can give him another one if I want.
I put Sunshine on my shoulder while I’m getting dressed. I put on a t-shirt that says, “Don’t worry; I’m only a figment of your imagination,” even though I know Mom will make me change it. I feel like a figment. My father is dead.
My father is dead. I put on my shoes. My father is dead. I run a brush through my hair and upset Sunshine: dragons have sharp claws, just so you know.
My father is dead. The sad lady hands me a needle and thread and a little box. “Just put it in your pocket,” she says. It’s the first time I’ve ever understood her voice, understood any of their voices. They have voices. “You’ll need it soon enough.” Her voice sounds so familiar.
Mrs Larkins from next door has come over to make us breakfast, so I sit down to oatmeal and coffee and bacon and eggs and more food than anybody could ever hope to eat, with my sister and my mom. My mom is drinking coffee, but she is not eating anything. It’s too quiet.
“I have a yellow dragon on my shoulder,” I say to my mom. “His name is Sunshine.”
I don’t know why my mother collapses into tears.
Narrative Assessment Commentary
“The Sad Lady” was written for Class Five of the Narrative module. The topic was the fantastic in narrative. I wanted to write a story where the fantastic landscape seemed completely ordinary to the protagonist but unbelievable to all the other characters. I tried to explore several other techniques we had covered in the module as well.
Polly sees all kinds of fantastic creatures in her day-to-day life, from sparkly fairies to the undescribed mushroom men, dragons, and I’m sure some we don’t see in the story. She doesn’t understand why she sees these things and other people do not, but she offers some suggestions (all coloured by her perceptions) at the beginning of the story. I tried to balance the fantastic things Polly sees against the mindset of an ordinary twelve-year-old girl.
The story is a first-person narrative, almost all of which unfolds as an internal monologue from Polly. She describes her world as she experiences it and the disconnect she feels between herself and the rest of the people with whom she interacts. Polly might be an unreliable narrator, but the story is meant to immerse readers immediately into her reality and establish Polly’s point of view as a world in which they can believe. When the tone shifts a little less than halfway through the story, I wanted readers to already like Polly and sympathise with her, even if she might be schizophrenic.
The sad lady herself, in addition to being unseen by the other people in Polly’s life, is an allegorical construct. She offers some foreshadowing of Polly’s father’s death and provides a concrete personification of the kind of grief Polly will shortly experience. The sad lady also functions as a kind of bridge between Polly and the creatures she sees all the time: the sad lady is able to communicate with and even command the garden dragon, for example. I had originally envisioned the sad lady as a shadow of a much older Polly, possibly a premonition of things to come, but I’m not sure if that explication really works except in Polly’s dream the night her father dies.
It’s difficult for me to separate narrative from narrator in “The Sad Lady”, because I had to believe Polly as I was writing this story. I think the creatures Polly sees are real. It might be an interesting exercise to write this story from Polly’s therapist’s point of view, but I don’t think that would be as good a story. One thing that comes to mind is that Polly’s descriptions of her inner world are far more vivid than the view she gives us of the real-life event to which the story has been building: the news of her father’s death. Polly’s interior life is so much more important to her than “real” life that she just gives us the bare facts and turns as quickly as she can to the sad lady and the garden dragon. What might have been a very dramatic moment to another narrator leads to Polly’s first real interaction with the garden dragon and her confused feelings over what’s just happened to her. Her need to remind herself that her father is dead is a tool she uses to put the sad lady and the garden dragon into the background, even though they are right there with her, sharing her grief. When Polly needs to fill the silence at breakfast, she forgets to be normal, which triggers her mother’s crying. Polly still doesn’t understand why people react the way they do to her world.
For the most part, I think this story succeeds. Polly might be crazy, or she might be a special visionary; I’m not sure it matters in a glimpse so brief. My only worry about the story structure is that the sad lady herself is inconsistent with the rest of Polly’s creatures. She could point to Polly being crazy, even though I’d rather she wasn’t. My original plan was to create a consistent narrative with a narrator who helps us suspend disbelief almost immediately. I think it worked. I think it did.
“The Sad Lady” hasn’t changed very much from the story I brought to class. I added a paragraph to further outline Polly’s landscape, and after my tutorial I took out some of the language I’d used to anglicise the piece— it’s an American story and it was struggling a bit when stuffed into another cultural box.