Chapter Eleven: The Madness

Aveny searched through old photo albums, boxes of letters, and all of her grandmother’s journal entries, scouring each page for some hint of the skin’s origin. Something … anything.

But there was nothing; nothing that would explain … this. The skin wasn’t even mentioned.

But there was something else. 

One entry, buried deep inside an old journal, piqued Aveny’s curiosity.

Cora is doing better. The doctors say she may soon come home. The treatments have been hard on her but they feel like they’re working.

Cora. A sharp chill danced across Aveny’s skin, raising tiny peaks in its wake. The “treatments.” She didn’t know what they classified as “going well” but she knew the result; her great aunt had returned home incapable of caring for herself – a lost soul trapped in a ravaged body.

Maybe all this – everything Aveny was experiencing – had happened to her Great Aunt Cora too. Maybe Aveny wasn’t the first to discover the skin’s powers.

Or maybe she was going crazy, just like her great aunt. Was this what crazy felt like? Do crazy people know they’re crazy? 

Aveny called Aunt Miriam to do some digging.

“What was Aunt Cora like?”

“Now that’s an unexpected question,” Miriam said. Aveny could hear what sounded like chanting in the background. “Why do you ask?”

“Just curious…”

Miriam hummed suspiciously, but answered anyway. “Cora was quiet when we were young. But she was also fearless. She was always wandering off somewhere. She was like you that way. She loved to explore. And she had lots of opinions.”

Aveny smiled at the way her aunt emphasized “opinions.”

“All that changed when she got sick, though, and after she was committed … well, she became very docile after that.”

“Why was she committed?” Aveny prompted.

“I don’t know, not exactly. Your grandmother and I were still in Minnesota then and she was all the way over in Oregon. That was really far in the 50’s. Catherine may have known more than I did but it was all very hush hush. People didn’t talk about stuff like that back then.”

“What do you think she had?” Aveny pressed.

“Oh, I’m not sure,” Miriam replied. “Probably hysteria.”

Aveny rolled her eyes. “That’s not a real thing, Auntie M.”

“It was back then – just like the polio.”

Aveny started to object but thought better of it. Following Aunt Miriam down one of her rabbit holes often left you exhausted, confused and jumping at small noises.

“What did she do? I mean, how did you first know she was crazy?”

“We knew when she was young, before she moved away,” Miriam replied.  

“But how?”

“How does anyone know anything?” Miriam sighed. “We just knew.”

Aveny paused. It was often difficult to decipher her great aunt’s sentiments. Once, when Aveny had asked how her day was going, she’d replied, “It’s the perfect day for a little chicken!”

When Aveny jokingly asked if this meant it was a great day to eat a little chicken or a great day to be a little chicken, Miriam had said, “both.”

When Aveny tried to point out that these concepts were mutually exclusive, her aunt had smiled, sighed and replied, “such is life.”

Aveny considered her options and decided to reframe the question. “What did she do that seemed … abnormal?”

“You know, it’s hard to see the ocean when you’re under water,” Miriam said.

Aveny let the line fall silent as she considered this. She was about to ask another question when Miriam spoke again. “Once, we found her on a floating log out in the middle of Lake Superior.” Her voice seemed suddenly far off, strangely accented by the echoing sound of her metallic earrings clanging against the receiver. “It’s a wonder she didn’t drown then. She was crying … We thought she was scared … but she wouldn’t get into the boat. She just laid on that log, reaching into the water like her soul had sunk to the bottom of the lake.” Miriam cleared her throat, then added in a cheerier voice, “She was always doing stuff like that.”

Aveny’s breath turned to ice on her tongue. “What kind of stuff?”

“Just … evaporating. Here one minute, gone the next. Even when she was there, she was already gone.”

“Did she like ….” Aveny pondered her words for a moment. “Did she like the water?”

“If that’s code for booze, then yes!” Miriam said with a laugh. “In her later years, she could have sterilized a spoon just by spitting on it.”

“Is that how she drowned?” Aveny asked. “Was she drunk?”

“Oh, that.” The line fell silent for a moment. “Life was really hard for Cora. After she got out of the asylum that last time, she couldn’t take care of herself. Her mind was too far gone. She ended up moving in with her ex-husband and his new wife. Things just got worse from there.”

Aveny pursed her lips at the thought. “Why would she move in with him? Why not someone else? And how would that even work?”

“Not well, I imagine. She was supposed to come home to us but she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to leave Oregon. So she moved into their basement and they lived upstairs. She wasn’t there long, though, before she died.”

“That would be horrible,” Aveny breathed. “Do you think that’s why she killed herself?”

“I don’t think she meant to kill herself.”

Aveny’s brow lifted in surprise. “What do you mean? I thought it was suicide.”

“That’s what people said, but people say a lot of things. Cora was less herself every day, but she wasn’t all the way gone. If she’d wanted to kill herself, she’d have done something more intentional. The way she died … well … she just walked into the water. That’s all. No jumping off a bridge or anything. Just folded her clothes on the shore and walked right in. They found her body a week later.”

Aveny felt sick. “Did she have … hallucinations?”

“I think she had everything. Abundantly blessed in the most unfortunate way.”

Aveny’s mind was racing. Was this her answer? Was history on repeat?

“Are you ready to tell me why you’re really thinking about this?” Miriam asked.

“No reason. I just … found a mention of her in one of grandma’s journals and wanted to know more.”

“Well, there’s more to your family history than the doom and gloom. I may not be a blood family member, but I helped Catherine do all your ancestry work. You should look at the charts in those boxes of yours. Did you know you’re actually descended from King Henry the First? And you’re a direct descendent of Sir Walter Raleigh, the famous adventurer.”

“Oh,” Aveny muttered noncommittally.  

“Did you know he was beheaded?” Miriam continued. “His wife buried the body but took the head away in a leather satchel. They say she had it embalmed and then carried it everywhere she went until her dying day. Now that’s either true love or a great way to cut down on dinner invitations…”

Aveny laughed, then felt a little sick – for more reasons than the thought of her ancestor’s head in a bag.

Later that night, Aveny returned to her research, unearthing the ancestry chart her great aunt had mentioned. She didn’t think she’d find any answers there. But she needed to focus her mind on something besides Cora’s terrible story – and its striking similarities to her own.

As she studied the chart, her eyes followed the lines branching out from her name to her mother’s, to her grandmothers, to her grandmother’s mother, and beyond. Each entry included a name, a birth and death date, and sometimes locations for each. Some lines came to an end abruptly, while others went back centuries. Some were complete, while others dead-ended in a single guessed name derived from old records or census documents.

As Aveny read, a sense of unease settled over her. There were so many names but so little information. It was scary how quickly someone could disappear. These were her direct relatives and all she had was a name and a couple dates. In some cases, not even that.

Aveny’s maternal line ended at her grandmother’s maternal grandmother, but her grandmother’s maternal grandfather’s line extended much further.

Both lines were populated with Irish names like Murphy, Kelly, O’Sullivan and Ryan – with an occasional British moniker thrown in for good measure. It was just like Grandma Catherine had said. But then again, official records didn’t always reflect private dealings and Aveny still thought her grandmother too dark to be all that Irish.

As she read each name, she searched for some spark of significance. She hoped against all logic to discover some trace of the skin’s origin hidden in the document. But as she searched the text, she found herself stymied. Ultimately, what did it all mean?

Nothing.

In the end, they were just names. They didn’t tell Aveny who may have come across this rare find, how they obtained it or from whom.

There was her Great Aunt Cora’s name. Just a name; no hint of the complex and often troubled life it represented.

There were simply no answers to be found; not to the questions fluttering around Aveny’s mind anyway.

But, then again, the skin was a sort of answer itself. More than that, it was a revelation. It had breathed life into Aveny, revitalizing her in ways she didn’t even know were possible.

Despite Cora’s troubling fate and Aveny’s own fear of the unknown, she was drawn to it. It entwined itself in her psyche and wove its presence deep into her soul. She did not resist.

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