Sylvia Plath knew she was doomed as soon as she opened her mother’s birthday present. It was going to be a book – her mother never gave her anything else – but this one was heavy.
She pulled the newspaper wrapping away from the cover and read the title. “The Bell Jar?” She looked up at her mother, who was rolling a cigarette. “What’s a bell jar?”
Her mother sealed the cigarette with her tongue, then tucked it behind her ear. “It’s a jar you can put over your head for when you need to scream. It traps the scream inside with you.”
Sylvia frowned down at the book. Its cover was softly rounded at the corners, and when she dragged her thumb down the page edges, they felt soft as feathers. Several of the pages were dog-eared and a few notes were scribbled in the margins in a handwriting not her mother’s. But they were in cursive, so Sylvia couldn’t read them.
“Mommy, it looks boring,” she said. “And there’s no pictures. Do I have to read this?”
Her mother sighed and took the book from Sylvia’s hands. “This is your namesake. Understand? This is who I named you after.” She shook the book by its binding and the heavy paperback flapped its guts.
“Oh…” Sylvia didn’t know what to say. The only other person she had ever met who was named “Sylvia” was the check-out lady at Dr. Fields’s office. She was at least a hundred years old, but she was nice and never said anything to her mother if Sylvia spent the whole hour daydreaming instead of reading like she was supposed to.
Her mother crossed her wrists over her knee and leaned forward. “What were you expecting? Harry Potter?”
“No, but I–”
“Look, Sylvia Plath is my hero. Ok? Her poetry is my soul on paper. She’s…” She closed her eyes and Sylvia immediately started counting. Her mother didn’t open her eyes again until 12.
“Life gets…life gets real hard sometimes, baby.” Her eyes were shiny with tears, but only for a second before she blinked them away. “I know it’s hard for you to understand, because your days are all rainbows and sunshine and shit–”
“Sorry, I know you don’t like when I use bad words.” She reached over and patted Sylvia’s hand. “The woman in this book, her name is Esther. And Esther is, um, well…I have a little bit in common with her. I read this book for the first time when I was fourteen. My friend Nick gave it to me. He said I’d relate to it, and it really did help me get through a lot. Especially dealing with your grandmother. She would sometimes, uh…” Her voice trembled like an industrial garage door closing, severing her sentence. Her last words rode the air current with the weight of dust motes down to the carpet, while the remains of her sentence stayed trapped inside her mouth.
Sylvia knew she just needed to be patient. She gently took the book from her mother’s limp hand and thumbed through the pages again, searching for an easy-to-read phrase. This time she spotted something underlined in pencil on page 199: I thought it would be easier.
Her mother turned her head and released her imprisoned words as though no time had passed. “…disappear for days or weeks and I had no one I could talk to. This book gave a voice to how I was feeling. Sylvia Plath, the real Sylvia Plath, understood the pain. She felt it, too. But she let it consume her. I don’t want that to happen to you.” She tapped the book in Sylvia’s lap. “I want you to read this so that you can be better prepared for when the demons come for you. Because they will. They came for your grandmother, and they’ve come for me, too. Again and again.”
She abruptly stood and kissed Sylvia’s hair. Retrieving the cigarette from behind her ear, she turned away and left the room without another word. A few seconds later, Sylvia heard the screen door creak open, then bang shut.
She waited a few seconds to see if her mother would come back (she often forgot why she had stepped outside and came back to see if Sylvia knew), but when she did not, Sylvia tucked the book under her arm, grabbed a clementine from the pantry, and headed to her bedroom.
After she had climbed the steep steps to the attic and dropped belly-first onto her mattress, she tossed the book to the side and peeled the clementine. The citrus perfume mixed with the musty odor of old paper oozing from the book’s pages. Sylvia ate each clementine segment separately, biting them in their juiciest middle part and peeling off the membranes with her teeth. She imagined she was a rainforest explorer who had run out of food and was being forced to eat bugs to survive. Chomp. Peel. Sluuurp!
She heard the screen door slam shut again and a moment later, her mother called up the stairs to her. “I’m going to go lie down for a bit. Be a good girl and be quiet for Mommy, all right?”
Sylvia rolled her eyes. She always had to be quiet. “Sure, Mom,” she yelled back.
“Unless you want to come take a nap with me?”
Sylvia groaned. “Do I have to?” She hated taking naps. Sometimes her mother would make her lie down with her and Sylvia would have to lie perfectly still for two or three hours, with her mother’s heavy arm draped over her shoulders and her sour wine breath on her cheek. Her mother always insisted that if she lay there long enough, she would fall asleep, too, but she never did.
Her mother was quiet for a few moments, and then she said, “No, you don’t have to. But go ahead and start reading that book. I want to hear what you think about it when I wake up.”
Sylvia sighed and glared over at the book. It was a grown-up’s book. Why did her mother give it to her? How in the world was she supposed to read it?
She groaned and swallowed the last bit of fruit, then sat up and wiped her fingers off on her jeans. She pulled the book onto her tented knees and opened it. Stamped in the middle of the title page in a faded blue ink was:
Property of Nicholas Plath.
I wonder if he knew the real Sylvia Plath, Sylvia thought as she reached over to her nightstand and pulled open a drawer. The tips of her fingers walked around inside, searching. At last they found what she was looking for. Sylvia removed a sheet of notebook paper and a pen. She flipped open the book to a random page with the cursive scribbling in the margin, then lay her own paper on top of it. With her pen, she carefully traced the loopy swirls.
When she was done, she held her paper up and examined her work. “Just like a grown-up,” she said. “Only a little bit messy.” When she looked back down at the page, she saw another underlined phrase that she had not noticed before: The letters grew barbs and rams’ horns.
Startled, Sylvia looked back at her tracing and saw the shaky imperfections in her carefully-drawn loops did sort of look like little horns. Weird! She thought.
She flipped to another page with notes and traced them. Then another. After the third page, she grew bored. She crumpled up the paper with her sloppy cursive tracings and threw it at her trashcan. When she looked down again, there was another underlined phrase: Doesn’t your work interest you?
Sylvia shivered as though her heart were pumping sleet through her veins.
Doesn’t your work interest you?
“Mom!” she yelled. “Did you underline some stuff in this book?” A half-second later she remembered her mother was asleep and she was supposed to be quiet. “Stupid naps,” she muttered.
Her mother had said the book had given her a voice. Did she mean the book had actually spoken to her? Could books do that?
“Are you talking to me?” she whispered, tucking her hair behind her ears. She watched to see if another phrase would underline itself. Nothing happened. She brought the book to her lips and tried again. “Hello? Can you hear me?” No response.
She waited for a moment, but when the book stayed silent, it occurred to her that she might have to search for an answer. She flipped through the whole book twice, but saw nothing was underlined. She couldn’t even find the sentences she had already read, sentences she knew were underlined.
Sylvia set the book down and rubbed her eyes with her fists.
She counted to 10 and tried again.
Holding the covers down, she rocked the book so that the pages all flopped back and forth together like their screen door on a windy day. Still no answer.
Maybe I didn’t ask the right question, she thought.
“Hey book,” she tried. “I’ve never talked to a book before, so I don’t really know what to say. So, um, how are you?”
“Ok… what’s your favorite color?”
“Well, mine is yellow…” Sylvia was beginning to think the whole thing was stupid. The book hadn’t really been trying to talk to her, had it? Probably not, but she decided to try again, anyway. She wiggled a loose tooth while she thought of a good question. “Ok, I’ve got it! Why did Mommy give you to me?”
She took a deep breath and flipped through the pages.
There! On page 202: Certain people, like me, had to live in hell before they died, to make up for missing out on it after death.
“No!” Sylvia screamed down at the book, forgetting she was supposed to be quiet. “No, that’s not a good answer! You’re mean and you’re just trying to scare me! But I’m not scared of a stupid, old book that smells like…like moldy popcorn!”
She grabbed all the pages in her fists and bent the book backwards until its spine cracked, something her mother had always told her not to do. Several pages tore away from their glue binding and fluttered down into her lap. Sylvia wiped her nose with the back of her hand and tucked the pages back.
“Why did you give me this book, Mommy?” she whispered. Only grown-ups should have to deal with scary old books that talked to you, Sylvia thought, but her thumb started flipping through the pages again, anyway.
Page 64: Your mother loves you.
Sylvia shrugged. “I guess so. She doesn’t always show it, though.”
Page 194: Why don’t you pay her a visit?
“What are you talking about, you dumb book? Mommy’s downstairs taking a nap.”
Page 106: No.
Sylvia frowned. “What do you mean? She told me so.”
Page 168: Pills.
“Pills?” Sylvia said. “What does that mean?”
Page 101: You know.
Sylvia shook the book. “I know what?” she screamed.
Page 198, written in all capitals and in bold: SLEEPING PILLS
Sylvia swallowed the stone in her throat. “What about them? Dr. Fields said Mommy could take one when she needed to rest. It’s just medicine. And medicine is good for you.”
Page 12: Better go now.
“Why?” Sylvia whispered, her hands trembling. She blinked back hot tears and whispered into the musty pages, “What’s wrong with Mommy?”
Page 100: Going to die.
Sylvia threw the book against the wall. It landed with its cover towards the ceiling, its pages spread open like the arms of a man who had spent the last ten seconds of his life pretending he was a bird.
Sylvia stared at it in frozen horror for a moment, then raced to the stairs.
She pulled on her mother’s hand, but her arm was as limp as a bag of rice. “Please wake up,” Sylvia whispered as she kissed her mother’s face all over, her lips tasting salt where tears wet her mother’s skin. Her face was pale and there was a baby-boy-blue tinge to her lips, but her skin was still warm.
“Nap time is over, Mommy,” she said in the same soft voice her mother used to wake her in the mornings. “Time to wake up now.”
She kissed her mother’s eyelids and felt a tickle on her lips as her eyelashes fluttered.
Sylvia gasped and jumped back.
Her mother’s eyes were rolled back in her head and all Sylvia could see were slits of white with red threaded through. Then her blue irises descended and her mother blinked at her, but there was no recognition in her eyes. “What’s…?” she slurred and Sylvia could smell puke on her breath. Then the blue was gone again, two elevators in a busy tower. Up, down, up. A gurgling noise like the last fizz in a soda bottle bounced around in her mother’s throat and foamy spit bubbled over her lips.
Sylvia had never felt so small and weak. She knew she was on the verge of being all alone in this world, but she didn’t know what to do. She reached out and took her mother’s face in both hands, her fingers reaching into the hollow behind her ear lobes. She tried to pull her mother up to sitting, but she was too heavy. Sylvia let go and her mother fell back against her pillow with her mouth hanging open. Sylvia balled her hands into fists at her side and screamed. “I read The Bell Jar! I read it like you told me to so I could tell you what I thought about it when you woke up. So you have to wake up now, Mommy! Wake up, Mommy. WAKE UP!”
Her mother’s irises came back down and this time, Sylvia could tell they saw her. “Hi,” she croaked, then started to cry. “I’m sorry, baby,” she sobbed. “It was an accident. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…”
Late that evening, after Sylvia had been sent to pack her suitcase while all the grown-ups talked on their cell phones downstairs, she found The Bell Jar splayed on the floor, just where she had left it. She dropped the fistful of socks she had been holding and gently recovered it. It felt warm as a kitten. She rubbed her thumbs on the cover and breathed its earthy scent into the deepest part of her lungs. Then she raised the book to her lips and kissed it.
“Thank you for saving her again,” she said and placed it on her nightstand. “We’ll talk more when I get back.”