Home > The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(5)

The Hazel Wood (The Hazel Wood #1)(5)
Author: Melissa Albert


It opens like this: “Althea Proserpine is raising her daughter on fairy tales.” It’s an odd opening, because my mom barely figures in the rest of the article, but I guess the journalist liked the double meaning. My mom was raised hearing fairy tales, like anyone else, and she was raised on the money that came from them. Althea’s estate, the Hazel Wood, was bought with fairy-tale money, too.

Before she wrote the strange, brief volume that made her name, my grandmother was a writer for women’s magazines, back when the job was less “20 Sexy Things to Do with an Ice Cube” and more “How to Get That Spot out of Your Husband’s White Shirt.”

Until she took a trip in 1966. She doesn’t name names, but she doesn’t stint on telling the reporter the good stuff: she was traveling with an older man, a married editor at a men’s monthly, lazing around the Continent with a group of other bored American tourists. After nine days spent drinking their liquor hot (couldn’t trust the ice cubes) and writing letters to their friends at home, things went sour between her and the married man. She took off on her own. And something happened.

She doesn’t say what, exactly. “I chased a new kind of story through a very old doorway,” she told the journalist. “It took me a long time to find my way back.” Not another word is said about what she did between 1966 and 1969, while her houseplants died and her job dried up and her New York life got mossed over and swept away.

When she returned to the States, the world had forgotten her. She felt, she said, “like a ghost moving through a museum of my old life.” (She talked like a woman who knew more books than people.) She found a friend to stay with, a former Barnard classmate with a spare room, where she sat down and tapped out twelve stories on a typewriter. They were collected into a book called Tales from the Hinterland, and published by a tiny independent press in Greenwich Village that focused on female-penned fiction nobody read.

But somehow, my grandmother’s was. Her lovely face on the back cover couldn’t have hurt: level eyes, blue in color but pale gray in black-and-white. Her eyebrow is quirked, her lips lined and slightly parted. She’s wearing a man’s white shirt, open one button too many, and a heavy onyx ring on her right first finger. She’s holding, of course, a cigarette.

The book got a few write-ups in smaller journals, and became a word-of-mouth sensation. Then a French director looking to make his first American picture optioned it for development.

The film shoot was infamous, plagued by high-profile affairs, professional squabbles, and the disappearance of two crew members in unrelated incidents. But the film itself was an art-house hit. It was rewritten as a psychological drama about a woman who wakes up in the woods with no memory of her former life; my grandmother’s stories play out as dream sequences, or flashbacks. According to the reviews I could find, it bore zero resemblance to its source material.

The movie’s success, partly fueled by infamy, led to several short-lived stage productions, a miniseries that never came to be, and Althea’s failed stint as a TV development consultant in Los Angeles. When she got back to New York she bought the Hazel Wood, going for a song after its last owner had died under seamy circumstances in a fire that damaged part of the estate.

She’d picked up a couple of husbands along the way, the first an actor she met on the set of the movie. He left his wife for Althea, and was killed by a junkie in their apartment in the Village when Althea was pregnant with Ella. She met her second husband, a displaced descendant of Greek royalty, in LA, and took him with her to the Hazel Wood.

So yes, you could say my mother was raised, in part, on fairy tales. But death played a part. And money. Dead-husband money, fairy-tale money, too. Enough of it must’ve ended up in my mother’s pockets to get us by despite her sketchy employment history and all the leases we’ve run from partway through. Staying in motion was as much a part of who we were as my mom’s sharp laugh, my angry streak. Our bad luck days that abated with every move, then slipped back in like red dirt on our shoes.

But no matter how bad it got, the Hazel Wood was always at our backs. It was always the place Ella would never return to. She took care of me, and I took care of her, in a symbiotic sisterly relationship that looked cute on TV but felt fucking exhausting when you’re moving for the third time in a year and don’t even have a bedroom door to slam.

As I pored over the article about Althea for the nth time, it didn’t read to me the way it used to. I once pictured Althea as a distant but benevolent star, a fairy godmother who watched me from far away. My fevered kid brain cooked together fairy tales and my missing grandmother and the mystery of the man who took me into a superstition I never voiced aloud. When I looked into mirrors, I secretly believed Althea could see me. When a man watched me too long through a car window or at the grocery store, I didn’t see a perv, or the first harbinger of the bad luck coming: he was one of Althea’s messengers. She watched me, and she loved me, and one day she would show herself to me.

But now I was reading her story with fresh eyes. She wasn’t a fascinating fairy queen, she was an arrogant fantasist. Who hadn’t once, from my babyhood to her death, tried to contact Ella. Ella, who had me at nineteen and hasn’t had anyone but me to hold on to since.

Because that’s what the article doesn’t get to. Just months after it ran, Althea’s second husband killed himself in the Hazel Wood. After his death, Althea closed its borders. She and Ella were shut up in there alone, living on fairy tales and god knew what else, with only each other for company. This is the part Ella really won’t talk about, the fourteen years she spent rattling around in a place cut off from the world. She didn’t even go to school. Who my dad is, and how she met him, is a secret so buried I’ve stopped asking.

My head was buzzing when I reached the apartment.

Wait. Apartment doesn’t put the right image into your head. The … estate? Not quite, but closer.

Harold’s place smelled like discreet cleaning products, my stepsister’s perfume, and whatever takeout Ella ordered that night. I think Harold had some idea she would be cooking dinner for him, maybe from the dented tin box of recipes that lived in the kitchen, inherited from his mother. But he was disappointed there: Ella and I could live for weeks on cereal and popcorn and boiled edamame.

I heard the high murmur of raised voices down the hall and followed it to their closed bedroom door.

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