I should never have called her Josephine. It’s too adult a name for a child. It is ripe with sensuality, knowing and corruption. When she was a baby, cradled in my arms, twitching her body in preparation for movement, it seemed delightful to have given her such an old name. She had grave, dark eyes and it suited her. She was a toy doll with the eyes of a libertine. It was amusing. I suppose that I thought her eyes would change at some point.
They didn’t though. She learned to crawl and then to walk. She learned to smile and then to talk. And always her grave black eyes taunted and tempted. By the time she was two, Josephine had become obscene. I had no idea how beautiful she would be. No-one will know how lovely she may have become.
All mothers think their children are beautiful and I had thought so of my three others. I still do; they are charming, engaging children that I love purely. Andrew shone with energy and intelligence; he was our first and so special. Emma was a golden angel, ethereally pretty, and Robert was breathtaking in his grace. They were all in school when Josephine was born. She was a surprise, in so many ways. Her beauty was different. She had the beauty of a vamp; she was earthy, animal promise. This was no abstract, innocent prettiness, but voluptuous sensuality. She was blonde and pale, like her sister, and looked like Emma had at that age. Looking at Josephine was seeing Emma in a mirror of corruption. Emma’s shining hazel eyes made grave and dark; Emma’s sweet mouth twisted with depravity. A fallen angel.
Women would stare at her when we went to toddler groups. I tried not to go to the same one two weeks running. There were about half a dozen that I would go between. With the other children, I had enjoyed the company of the mothers but with Josephine I couldn’t bear the looks. In their eyes there was a mixture of desire and disgust that I felt myself and I hated to have it reflected back to me. I would tell myself that I loved her, cleanly, purely, as a mother, as I loved my older children. But in the secret stolen moments that I could call my own, and for the first time was glad were so infrequent, I would look at my beautiful daughter with her hint of corruption and desire her and be disgusted.
I disliked her because I saw in her the seed of corruption. I looked at her knowing eyes and rolled her name around my tongue. Josephine. I had given my child a whore’s name. She had only been alive four months by the time we were exclusively calling her Josie. It was possible that the name was innocent and it only became ruined when it was attached to her. She had that effect on things, and people. By the time I realised that I already blamed her name.
Josephine clung to her. She preferred it. When people first heard it they would sigh it out with dread comprehension. Their breath would settle around her, laden with desire. She would smile her coy, lewd half-smile and look up, seductive, knowing. As if she already knew what you wanted to do. The first swell of lust is quickly followed by revulsion and fear. I met no-one who was not deeply disturbed by my toddler’s carnal beauty and I met no-one who did not hate her for it.
How can the features and manner of one tiny child evoke such a response? It is taboo, utterly wrong and it sickens me. I have other children and never felt this way. I have suckled them, cleaned them, clothed them, bathed them with pure maternal love. I had nothing but bewildered contempt for anyone who might find these little beings sexual. Even when they became aware of themselves, even when they played with themselves, it left me cold. They still do. As they should.
And then there was Josephine. I’m not sure when it first happened. Perhaps it grew gradually over time. It was maybe a year before her beauty became astonishing. And maybe another before I realised how fleshly she had become. I would look at pictures of her and wonder if this temptress was truly my daughter.
My husband, Greg, didn’t help me with Josephine. With Andrew, Emma and Robert he had been very involved. He bathed them, fed them, played with them, read to them. He is a model father to all but his youngest child. I noticed early on that he didn’t like to look at her and I thought I knew why. We’ve never talked about it and I didn’t insist. It seemed better that I should be the only one to do these things. When she climbed on his knee for a cuddle I saw how ill at ease he was, how he was uncomfortable putting his hands on her body, how he moved her away as soon as he could.
We called her Josie exclusively after only four months. Perhaps I knew then. Perhaps it took me that long to acknowledge what I felt. Perhaps it took that long to name what I felt.
It was torment to bathe her, to clothe her, to touch her and pretend it was innocent. To believe she was innocent. But I couldn’t let anyone else do it. I was too afraid of others’ lack of control. If I, her mother, who had never harmed one of her children, had never conceived the possibility of abuse, of even a physical nature much less sexual, could barely restrain myself around her fleshly, earthy presence, what chance did anyone else have?
I dreaded gifts of clothes. A vest and shorts, androgynous and plain on other children, became slutty on her. It is fashionable to dress children as miniature adults. The adult she became in embroidered jeans and a fur-trimmed jacket was stickily ripe. This future woman had tasted everything and smeared the juices over her body. She had joyfully slipped into depravity. She was lewd and lascivious and rejoiced in every moment. I hated her for the experiences I had never had and never known I wanted until I saw my three year old in a metallic blue, sequined Stetson.
I took my desire and my disgust and put it away in a box. I never discussed it. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if I’d talked to someone then, a professional, about what I felt. Now I have no choice. At the time, I was too ashamed. What would I have said? Would I have told someone that relations between Greg and I had changed since Josephine had come along. We had never been particularly adventurous sexually and that suited us both. We were tender and loving and gentle. Josephine changed that. We started to experiment and as she grew older our games grew darker.
Maybe I thought she would grow less beautiful, maybe I thought her beauty would become cleaner. Nobody said anything to me about it.
With my older children I worried that they would be snatched. Of course I had. They are adorable. Who wouldn’t want them? But I worried in an abstract way.
It was only with Josephine that I began to imagine what might be done to her. I told myself it was normal to picture this child naked and tormented, subject to depredations I would never consent to myself. And always with her grave black eyes and half-smile. This over-ripe plum could not be corrupted. She was born corrupt. Josephine. I cursed you with a whore’s name; a name that becomes a groan, an expulsion of pent up air, a release of tension I didn’t know I was holding. Her name was a moment of ecstasy that should be tender, intimate but became dirty, obscene.
When she was four we went on holiday. I didn’t want to go to Spain. Greg insisted. We hadn’t had a holiday since Josephine had been born. I was agitated by the thought of her carnality in a swimsuit, but we needed a break. Perhaps I thought after all, that two weeks away in the sun would be a tonic. The resort was child-friendly and our friends were all going. Maybe I thought that seeing her amongst other children would reduce my fears. Maybe I had simply seen something once and been unable to see anything else. Perhaps my fevered imagination had made more of my daughter’s corruption than was really there.
I was so wrong. To see my beautiful plum running and playing on the beach with her siblings, with the other children, was torture. My body hummed in response to her. I felt it in my breasts and groin and it sickened me. I saw other parent’s notice her, be absorbed by her and forget their own. I saw Spanish women make the sign of the cross, as if her carnality could only have come from the devil. She was like a child. She was innocent and carefree and playful. Until she turned her grave eyes upon you and then she and you were lost.
Through all this, I cannot say that my daughter behaved with awareness, that she did anything wrong, that she in any way acted differently than any other child. What people see, what I see, is read by us and not written by her. We see sensuality, corruption and carnality and who is to say it is there? The only thing that kept me from believing it was only my fault, my twisted sickness, was that I saw it in everyone around me. In the possessive, obsessive eyes of other mothers, in the open-mouthed shock of adolescent boys we passed in the street, in the towels dragged across the laps of the fathers on the beach, I knew my rotten, depraved daughter aroused others as she aroused me.
She wore a pink sun hat with yellow flowers. I saw the same hat on a few other little girls while we were on the beach. They looked adorable. They looked cute and protected from the sun. I watched them play and laughed with joy. On Josephine’s harlot head the hat said, ‘strip me, fuck me’. It topped her tiny body, pale skin slick with sun cream, mimicking more natural fluids, sticky and suckable like an over-ripe plum, and an innocent sunhat was perverted because she wore it.
For a time I had put her to bed in long, white, Victorian style nightdresses. They buttoned at the neck and covered her to her wrists and ankles. It was supposed to be demure. I thought chaste nightwear might make her look more innocent. Emma had worn them and looked a picture of angelic grace. Then I saw Josephine stand on the bottom stair, her tiny white hand caressing the shiny wooden finial at the end of the banister, looking at me with her grave dark eyes, half-smiling as if she knew what I had tried to do and knowingly thwarted me. Her dirty beauty sullied the nightdress. Her voluptuousness made it seem a sordid dressing up game. A debauchee dressed up as an ingénue, licking her lips at the thought of the unspeakable acts she might force you to force upon her. We went back to Bratz pyjamas. Their superficial sexuality was the most innocent game on my bruised plum.
Greg was wrong: the holiday was not what we needed. It was the worst thing we could have done. We watched our friends with their children, playing with our children. I saw how the games that involved Josephine seemed furtive as if they were doing things they didn’t want the grownups to know about. I spent less time with her. Not all of our friends had children so there were more adults than children and everyone pitched in to help. A little distance changed how I felt. Freed from the cloying, decaying presence of my youngest daughter, the balance between desire and disgust shifted.
I became angry. This one person had affected everything in my life. I hadn’t gone back to work because I dare not leave her with anyone. Greg hadn’t said anything; he just did more overtime. Our relationship with each other changed. Physically, we couldn’t get enough of each other; the needy, desperate, dirty sex was compulsive. Shame drove a wedge between us. He was tired from working and I was tired from childcare. We fucked without eye contact and barely spoke.
We both tried so hard with the other children, Andrew and Emma were on the cusp of adolescence when we went to Spain and they needed us. I would look at them and marvel that they were so grownup in some ways, yet neither of them had lost any innocence or become less pure. It gave me hope that there were some things that Josephine couldn’t corrupt. I insisted that Josephine had a room of her own. It meant we had to have a bigger house, and to afford that, we had to live in a poorer area. The schools weren’t as good as they would have been if Emma could have shared a room with Josephine. I couldn’t bear the thought that Josephine might make her sister as rotten as her. So we all sacrificed.
In the resort villa, Emma and Josephine had to share a room. They were excited, Greg was nervous and I was frantic. The only other option was to have her in the same room as us but we both knew that wasn’t possible. There was no way we could go two weeks without sex, not since Josephine had been born, and neither of us wanted the chance that she would see what we did. I listened to my friends complain that they haven’t the time or energy for sex. When you hit your forties it seems as if everyone runs out of steam whether they have children or not. But Greg and I found time, in the depths of the night when the children were asleep and the door was locked.
We left the children at night for dinner. They weren’t far away and we all took turns to check them. We weren’t the only ones to do so. The first night we’d left them I was fraught. My stomach was so tight I could barely eat. There was nothing I could say to explain without touching on what I was really worried about. After all, Andrew and Emma were twelve and eleven. They knew not to be caught out of bed and they knew how to get us if anything were wrong. I dreaded going back to the villa, frightened of what I might find, the things I thought Josephine would do the others. But nothing happened. They slept. They were exhausted from swimming and running on the beach and they fell asleep straight away.
After that night, my friend Claire offered me sedatives. She suffered with her nerves and thought they might help me. She always had many more than she needed, just in case.
“You need a blow out.” She said. “You’re so tense. These will help.”
Now I think about it, she probably meant that I should take them. I gave them to Josephine. If I could be sure that she was asleep I could relax a little. Part of me felt that just proximity to Josephine could corrupt. So far my angels had been immune but now Emma was sharing a room with her. I’ve no idea what I thought she would do and no evidence on the part of Josephine that she would do anything except be a normal child, but I feared for my daughter.
My husband went to check the next time. He returned concerned. Andrew, the eldest, he was sure had been in the girls’ room. He said Josie, stumbled over the impulse to sigh Josephine. I saw desire and disgust mashed in his eyes. He was sure it was innocent and Andrew had scrambled back to his room as his father had come into the villa. I wanted to check again but feared what I might find. The minutes dragged painfully, pulled like a rope through my hands.
I walked the few steps to our cabin heavily. Oh how I hated what she had made. I had withdrawn from my three pure, innocent babies, frightened by her sensuality. I hated the images that flickered through my mind, those grave eyes, the smile that half-licked the lips, the sticky rotting flesh of my over-ripe plum smeared on the virginal flesh of her brother. I hated the thought that she might cause me to see my other precious babies in the way I saw her.
The villa was quiet and dark when I pushed open the door. The soft snuffling indicated sleep. I checked the boys’ room first. Andrew and Robert were sleeping open mouthed and twisted up in the sheets. They looked like snoozing angels. I pulled the sheets from Andrew’s legs and smoothed it over him, then did the same for Robert. Neither woke, but Robert clutched his toy rabbit closer to his chest. I closed the door behind me, gently, and rested my forehead on the cool wood veneer. I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears of relief and swallowed down the sick fear for my girl, Emma, alone in a room with Josephine.
The door to the girls’ room was a couple of steps down the corridor. I had taken my shoes off when I came into the villa so as not to clatter my heels on the marble floor. It was cold under my bare feet. Swallowing the hard, jagged lump in my throat I pushed the handle down and opened the door. Cool, peaceful darkness greeted me. The light rhythmic breathing of sleeping children was audible over the noise of diners at the poolside restaurant. Relief can be an unpleasant feeling. It choked me, stabbing at my throat and burning my eyes with unshed tears.
After a moment, I crossed to Emma’s bed. A shaft of light fell across her pillow where the curtain didn’t quite cover the edge of the window. Her pale blond hair splashed across the white linen and her arms were thrown wide. I knelt by the bed and gently kissed her forehead. A noise like a sob drew my attention to the other bed. Josephine. Now she’s gone, she’ll always be Josephine. She was never Josie; that was only the desperate hope I harboured that this could have turned out well, that things could have been different if she hadn’t had that name. I hoped I might never have to tell this story.
I looked from my perfect angel to my other daughter. She lay on her side facing me, the thin sheet pulled up around her shoulders, tiny hands clutching it up to her face. Her eyes were half closed with sleepiness.
“Mummy?”Still on my knees I crossed to her bed and with one finger, brushed her fringe from her eyes. “Go to sleep.” I whispered. With her eyelids heavy from the sedative I felt almost tender towards her.
“Can I have a drink?” she said.
I looked at the empty glass on the nightstand between the two beds. I smiled and picked it up.
Sitting here, in this featureless room with plastic tables and chairs eerily like the ones in the villa’s kitchen diner, I don’t remember what was on my mind as I walked out of the room. It was a terrible blankness as if my conscious mind wanted nothing to do with what was going to happen. Yet, I can’t say I had no control, that I couldn’t have stopped myself, that it wasn’t deliberate. I took the little baggie of sedative from the high cupboard in the kitchen. There was enough for the rest of the week. I tipped all the pills into the mortar and ground them to dust. Normally I give the children water in the night, but I chose to give Josephine juice. She liked apple. I stirred and stirred until the grainy white powder dissolved and carried the glass back to Josephine.
She had drifted back into sleep. I had to wake her up. It is this one thing that means I can’t pretend I did this by mistake or I didn’t know what I was doing. I stacked the pillows against the headboard and lifted her under her arms so that she was sat up against them. She obediently took the glass and drank. She must have been thirsty because even though she pulled a face at the taste she drank most of the glass straight down. I might have left it at that, but when she handed the glass back to me, she opened her eyes and looked directly at me. I saw my guilt reflected back at me and told her to finish the drink. She did. I suppose I should have felt bad.
Returning to my husband and friends, I felt tired, but light. As I sat down, I caught Greg’s gaze across the table. I smiled and for the first time in four years I loved him. The wine tasted sweeter in my mouth and people seemed brighter, their laughter like crystals chiming in a soft breeze. The next forty five minutes flashed by and soon it was time to go check on the children again. This time the knot in my stomach was excitement.
She wasn’t breathing. She looked like she had been strangled and if you put your fingers to her throat there was no pulse. I checked the others briefly. They were fine; nothing could hurt them now. I knew I had to put on a show and act the distressed mother. I stood there for a few moments savouring my freedom and then I imagined it had been Emma lying still and cold in the bed. I fuelled my sadness with the pent up anger and fear that Josephine had given me and rushed outside. I screamed and screamed, releasing all the horror I had kept inside since she had been born. I screamed until I had no breath left and then I screamed in silence.
Eventually I was exhausted and sought refuge in my bewildered husband’s arms. I saw in his eyes that he knew what had happened and I saw his relief. For four years he was as shut down as I was. If he hadn’t picked up the baggie from the kitchen and put it in his pocket, if he hadn’t washed up the mortar and pestle, perhaps our other children would have their father at least. That’s what I feel bad about. I should have cleaned up after myself. Then it would only be me locked up and my precious angels would be safe with their father. Even in death, she makes what should have been good into something very wrong.
Originally published in Pantechnicon, 2008. Pantechnicon had to close due to malicious attacks on the website.