The alpha-posters on our local Facebook ‘mommy’ group call the wishing well park a hidden gem. The hidden part is right: it’s tucked at the end of a cul-de-sac, obscured by dense pines. I must have walked past the top of the street a hundred times in the year Sadie insisted on napping in her pram, but I never noticed it. I wouldn’t have stopped if I had. The jungle gym is old, the wood worn smooth and slippery by generations of climbing feet, and the lone swing set beside it shrieks in the breeze. It’s cold, too, the grass patchy and starved of light, and the shadows mass deep for mid-afternoon. I can’t think what the Facebook moms see in this place.
Sadie, my three-year-old, shares my misgivings. She squirms in her stroller, clinging to the straps as I unbuckle her. “No play, Mama! I want TV!”
“But we just got here!” I say, with forced cheer.
A group of moms are chatting over lattes by the sandpit. I recognise a few of them from the Facebook group: organised, capable women with an endless cache of kid-friendly recipes and sensory play ideas. I never post in the group, so there’s little chance they’ll recognise me. Even so, I don’t want to give impression that I’m one of those disengaged parents who lets their kid watch TV in the middle of the afternoon. Though of course I am, and I do.
“Let’s make a wish, bunny.”
I offer Sadie a coin from my purse, but she shakes her head, her eyes wide and fixed on the well. “Scary, Mama.”
She’s right: even the park’s namesake is a disappointment. I’d pictured a storybook folly, but the reality is a craggy rend in the earth marked by a circle of stones at the heart of the park. There’s a rusted wire frame padlocked over the hole and a security light stands sentinel beside it.
Sadie continues to protest at my back as I venture for a closer look. The rank odour of rotting meat wafts from the opening and something glimmers in the webby darkness, too bright for tossed coins. I squint and lean further over. Water laps against rock: a whisper beckoning me down, down, down into the spiralling dark. I feel dizzy. My centre of gravity tilts and I reach out a hand.
Behind me, Sadie screams: an ear-splitting banshee wail. I startle and stumble back, almost losing my balance. She’s still standing by her stroller, face red and quivering with outrage.
“Home, Mama!” she demands. “I. Want. To. Go. Hooooooooommmmmeee!” The last word is a shriek, knifing through my nerves.
I manage a wonky, child’s drawing of a smile. “Okay, bun-bun. We can go.”
Sadie continues to tantrum as I buckle her back into the stroller because ‘strollers are for BABIES, Mama!’
I take a breath and count down from ten as I rummage in my bag for a packet of dino crackers to placate her. My brain fog is thick today, casting everything a hazy, hopeless grey. I’d hoped a trip to the park might help: fresh air and wishful thinking. I see the other moms have laid out a fruit platter and homemade muffins for their kids. A spike of resentment goes through me. I don’t understand how they manage. Or why I can’t.
One of the women catches me staring and gives an uncertain half wave.
Fuck. I wheel Sadie back towards the street.
“Kat? Katrina George?”
I fix my smile back in place and turn to see the woman who’d waved making her way over.
“It is you!”
The woman is tall and striking with high cheekbones and hair falling in balayage waves. An infant naps against her chest in one of those fabric sling-thingies I could never figure out and a boy about Sadie’s age clings to her skirt. She’s not active in the Facebook group, and I run through my mental Rolodex trying to place her.
“Nora Eacott,” she offers. “From Henley High. You were in my art class?”
“Right. Of course. How are you?” I say, doing my best to tamper my surprise. I remember Nora Eacott as mousy and earnest, always gushing compliments over other students’ work and trying to emulate their style. Now, her smile is sure and sharp.
“Wonderful, thanks—busy with Jasper and Willow here,” she says, touching the baby’s head. “Gosh, what are the chances of us running into each other after so long, and at this park of all places? I was sure you’d be living somewhere glitzy by now.”
“Nope, still here.” My cheeks hurt with the effort of smiling.
“And still painting, I hope?”
“Oh, no. Gave that up to pay the rent. I’m a graphic designer for a marketing firm. Or I was, until Sadie came along.”
Truth is, I should be painting. My husband landed his dream job right before Sadie was born. It meant longer hours, but came with a pay bump that eclipsed my salary. I never intended to become a stay-at-home mom, but with the eye-watering cost of childcare, being home with Sadie made more sense than returning to work, especially if I could generate a little income from my art on the side. It’d felt like a gift at the time. But Sadie was fussy from birth, sleeping in twenty-minute snatches and prone to long crying jags. On the rare occasions I found myself with a quiet half-hour to work, I was so exhausted and woolly-headed from lack of sleep, I barely had the energy to prep a canvas, let alone think what I might paint.
“Are you working?” I ask, shifting the focus away from me.
Nora dips a hand into her purse and offers me a business card. ’I have occasional exhibitions, but commissions pay the bills.’
“You’re an artist?”
“Much improved since high school,” she assures me.
I’m stunned. It seems impossible, unfair, that copy-cat Nora could make a career for herself where I’d failed.
I swallow my gall. “I’d love to see your work.”
She gives a humble nod to the eastern edge of the park were a mural spans the wall of the neighbouring house. It depicts a thicket of trees, creating the illusion that the playground backs onto a wood. Hidden details reveal themselves between the boughs as I continue to look: a path edged in wildflowers, a glass slipper, a silver key, feathers, bones and golden coins—each finely crafted and dense with power, as though shaped by tale-telling tongues.
“I wanted to reflect the park’s magic,” Nora explains.
Something cracks in my chest. Darkness rushes to fill the widening chasm and I feel the urge to scream the way Sadie had when I got close to the well.
“It’s enchanting,” I manage, my smile turning rictus. “And great running into you, but Sadie and I need to get going.”
“We’re leaving, too. Why don’t you come back to ours? There’s a half-bottle of white in the fridge that needs drinking. The kids can play while we catch up.”
I start to refuse, until I realise that Sadie has stopped screaming. She and Jasper are taking turns eating dino crackers and displaying the chewed up ‘bones’ on their tongues. It’s a relief to see her happy.
Nora’s house is small but inviting, with nasturtiums tumbling through the picket fence in welcome. Inside, we’re greeted by the washing machine’s hum and the lingering waft of fresh-baked muffins. Through open doorways, I glimpse neatly-made beds, vases of flowers cut from the yard and toys tidied into coloured tubs with hand-drawn picture labels to remind Jasper what goes where. The kitchen’s a mustard relic from the 70s and there’s a morning’s accumulation of clutter, but there are no damp towels on the floor or grubby fingerprints on the windows. No broken crayons, crumbs, dust or dirt.
Nora glides ahead of me, collecting the wine and glasses as she ushers the kids through to the backyard where stone fruit and citrus trees flank laden veggie patches. I trail behind in quiet wonder: this is the house and garden I yearn for—would have if I could get on top of the cooking and cleaning with enough energy leftover to give our place some personality—and watching over it all is the property’s crown jewel: a detached rumpus room-turned-studio.
Envy curdles in my stomach.
“You want to see inside?” Nora asks.
Large windows fill the room with natural light and the garden’s verdant palette enchants the eye. There’s a canvas ready on an easel and a desk cluttered with sketchbooks. A copy of The Golden Bough and collections of fairy tales from around the world line the shelf above the desk.
“This is incredible,” I breathe. “Not just the studio: your work, the kids, the house, you.”
She cocks her head to one side, sensing the bile beneath my words. “Are you happy, Kat?”
“I saw you earlier, looking into the well. It seemed like you were wishing for something.”
A full night’s sleep. A day without tears.
“A sandwich,” I joke. “Sadie woke up from her nap before I had a chance to eat.”
Nora gives me a tight smile and looks around, as though trying to see the studio through my eyes. “Did you know that in the oldest fairy tales, there are no wicked step-mothers?” she asks, following my gaze to the bookshelf. “It’s the mothers who abandon their children in the woods, poison and punish them. Now, we twist the tales to make mothers wholesome and pure—capable of miracles—but it comes at a price.”
Her words conjure trees twisting out of graves, pricked fingers and blood staining fresh snow.
Silent, lifeless figures shining at the edges of our stories.
“You might think I’m living the dream,” she says. Her mouth is a pinched thread pulled tight, her eyes needle-sharp. “But I sacrifice a lot for this.”
We drink our wine on the patio while the kids play and Nora tells me that her husband works part-time so he can be home with the kids while she paints. He loves to cook. They go on family camping trips and split the chores fifty-fifty. She’s right: I don’t know what it costs her or what secret aches and disappointments she might nurse, but their life sounds fucking delightful.
I excuse myself to use the bathroom, where I slump on the toilet’s closed lid and cry. You’re pathetic, a voice in my head whispers. Even Nora Fucking Eacott has her shit together, while you can’t keep up with the laundry. My inadequacies swarm dark and thick, stinging my heart and buzzing in my lungs until there’s no room for air. I dig my nails into the scabs concealed beneath my hair, drawing my pain to the surface. Blood trickles over my scalp and, for a moment, I can breathe.
I can cope.
Sadie’s cry carries from outside: high pitched and piercing, shattering my nerves anew.
“I’m coming, Sadie-Baby!”
Nora is waiting on the other side of the door, so close I almost crash into her. She wears a strange, pitying expression expression.
“I need to get to Sadie,” I say, trying to step around her.
“She’s fine. Let them play.” Her words are firm: a spell to make it so.
Sure enough, the screaming stops and laughter tinkles in from the backyard.
Nora flashes an I-told-you-so smile and presents me with a copy of the latest Liane Moriarty novel. “I wanted to invite you to our book club.”
I blink at her. Of course she’s in a book club.
“The timing’s perfect; we’re meeting tomorrow night. At the park, in fact. This weather’s too good to waste indoors.”
She presses the book into my hands, and I wonder how much of a coincidence our reunion is. Facebook posts dropped like breadcrumbs. A friend and a circle when I need them most. But that’s silly: she couldn’t have known.
“You don’t need to read the whole thing,” she assures me, misreading my expression. “Book club’s our excuse to get together without the kids.”
“My husband works late,” I say, which is true. “I’m not sure I can make it.”
A warm glob of blood trickles down my hairline. Before I can wipe it away, or think how to explain, Nora touches her finger to my temple to staunch the flow.
“It’s one night a month, Kat.” Her eyes are steady on mine as she puts the bloodied finger in her mouth and licks it clean. “It’ll be good for you.”
Later, I find Nora’s Instagram while Sadie watches Paw Patrol on my laptop and mashes peas into the table. Her posts are what I expect: images of her work, mixed with rosy snaps of family life. But two years back, the glossy woman I met today disappears, replaced by a washed out version closer to the girl I remember from school. I pause on a selfie captioned ‘cluster feeding blues.’ Nora’s face is a pale blur. A seething ghost in the nursery dark.
“Bad doggy! Bad doggy!”
I look up to see Boston, our aging staffy, licking Sadie’s plate clean on the floor. Sadie has smeared the remains of her dinner in her hair and is ‘watering’ my laptop with juice. I sigh, frisbee her plate into the sink and go to run her bath.
My husband arrives home with beer-sour lips as I’m starting the washing up. He insists he’d rather skip work drinks and expects me to feel sorry for him having to socialise with his colleagues while I work through the two-hour bedtime saga of stories, songs and tantrums. He circles his arms around me and nibbles my neck while I scrub at a saucepan. I tense. I’m touched out, my senses overloaded from being clung to and screamed at.
“What can I do to make you feel good?” he asks, his voice a husky whisper.
Run me a bath, I think. Get up to Sadie when she wakes in the night so that I can manage more than ninety-minutes sleep at a stretch. Give me space to feel like a person again.
I nod at the dishes. “Dry while I wash?”
He gives an exasperated sigh. “The cleaning can wait. You used to be fun, Kat.”
I want to feel angry as he stomps off to power up the Switch. I am angry. But my rage is overwhelmed by a deepening sense of defeat. I’ve become a nag, consumed by petty grudges and a calendar that revolves around bin night, Sadie’s naps and grocery shopping. I look around at our kitchen, still messy with stray crumbs and sticky handprints. How did I let my world become so small? The Moriarty book sits on the bench by my keys. It tugs at me: another of Nora’s enchanted objects. If I’m lucky, I have an hour before the first of Sadie’s night-time wake ups. And I decide that my husband is right: the dishes can wait.
The other mothers are already gathered around the well when I arrive at the park the following night. They sip wine from paper cups beneath the sodium lamp, recalling fabled women who meet on darkened heaths.
Shadows mass beneath the trees and the flowers and magic tokens of Nora’s mural seem to float free of the wall as the painted foliage melts into the gloom. Caution prickles along my spine. I don’t belong among these women. I don’t want to know what they do in the dark to bring order to their days. But I can’t go home. Can’t continue as this invisible, brain-fogged mom-slug who hides her scarred and sagging body beneath oversized hoodies and wrings herself out anew each day.
So I stay.
Nora calls the women to order. “It’s that time of the month, ladies.”
A hush settles over the group as she unbuttons her blouse. The Halloween light licks over a stitched wound cutting across her heart space. One of the women steps forward and offers her a pair of silver sewing scissors. I watch between my fingers as she snips through the threads and healing skin. The wound gapes, dark and ragged. Seeping blood. Nora licks her thumb and forefinger and dips them into her chest.
My stomach gives a nauseous flip and I bite my cheek to keep from crying out. This can’t be real. I don’t want to look, but my feet carry me closer, to the edge of the light.
The other women are silent, their eyes tense and fixed on Nora as she teases something glowing from her chest. It looks like old lace, spun with spider’s silk. The pattern of loops and whorls uniquely hers. Her face is radiant with its light as she cuts a small square free. She closes her hand over it for a moment and whispers a wish, before dropping the piece of herself into the well. The woman who offered her the scissors has a sewing kit ready and closes the wound with quick, tender sutures. Nora flinches and grits her teeth each time the needle dips beneath her skin. But the magic is already working: the tired lines around her eyes smoothed away as her breasts swell with new milk for Willow’s night feed. Her friend cleans the blood with a baby wipe and hums healing words over the wound. Nora starts to hand her the scissors to take her turn, then stops.
Her gaze finds me in the dark. She fixes me in place with an even, hostess’ smile and the edges of her blouse flutter around her stitched-up skin as she makes her way over.
“Will you join us, Kat?” She holds out the scissors in offering. “There’s a price to pay, but we shine so bright.”