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Excerpt

When We Lost Our Heads

Heather O’Neill

February 7, 2022 
The following is excerpted from Heather O'Neill's new novel, When We Lost Our Heads. O'Neill is a novelist, poet, short-story writer, screenwriter, and essayist. Her internationally-acclaimed books include The Lonely Hearts Hotel and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. Her debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. O'Neill lives in Montreal with her daughter.

The Arnetts had come to the Golden Mile when Sadie’s father inherited the mansion from his great‐uncle. It was a beautiful house made of polished, square gray stones that seemed indifferent to harsh winters. Mr. and Mrs. Arnett moved in on their third wedding anniversary. Their son, Philip, was a baby, and their daughter, Sadie, had not yet been born.

The house in the Golden Mile was their ticket to security and prosperity. Mr. and Mrs. Arnett were both determined to use their address to climb to the top of the social ladder. Mr. Arnett was a politician known for his zealous advocacy of moral decency. He repeatedly requested that prostitutes and houses of ill repute be closed down. The minute he criticized a play, it extended its run, knowing full well the publicity would bring people out in droves.

His address loaned him an air of respectability. The illusion of wealth was what had kept his career afloat. The Arnetts often thought of selling it because they needed the money. But they knew if they did sell it, they would no longer have the status of living in the Golden Mile.

They kept the house freezing cold in the winter to save money. The third floor was entirely cordoned off so they didn’t have to clean or heat it. They had only one maid, who was Mrs. Arnett’s seventeen‐year‐old cousin. She was more or less posing as a maid instead of actually being one. Mrs. Arnett did the lion’s share of the housework. She got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the floor viciously with a brush. She had to make it look as though she had three maids working all the time. They never encouraged visitors. It was such a great expense to them to entertain.

They could have led a normal life if they were humble. If they lived in a house suitable to a politician and sent Philip to a less expensive school. But they needed to ally themselves with real money. They had to truly be accepted into the Golden Mile if Mr. Arnett were going to rise in the political ranks.

*

When Sadie was a young girl, she did not scream and cry and fuss unnecessarily the way some babies do. She never spoke until she spoke in full sentences. She was so clear about what she wanted.

Sadie was very self‐sufficient as a child. Perhaps she had to be, since she had only one maid who didn’t clean up. She didn’t like when anyone dressed her. She despised certain outfits. She put on the same navy‐blue dress with black stripes on the collar every day and tied on her black boots.

She opened books before she could read them. She refused to ever play with her brother.

She sat next to Philip while he was being taught to read and write. She was absolutely still. She learned the lessons quicker than he did.

She seemed to know this would be the only time she was exposed to teaching in the same way. So she sat as quietly as a mouse and took it all in.

She was always shocking members of the household. They would enter a room and not know she was in it. Then they’d turn and leap almost out of their socks. It seemed truly as though she had appeared out of thin air. But she had been standing right there the whole time.

*

When Sadie was seven years old, her mother went to the extra expense of hiring a governess, in hopes it would make her ladylike. The governess had to be let go after she had allowed Sadie to fall off a cliff. But she swore Sadie had thrown herself deliberately over it. No one could accept this. But the governess had seen what she had seen. And no one could convince her she had been in any way mistaken in her interpretation.

She had taken her eyes off Sadie for a brief moment. When she looked again the girl was smiling at her, with her back to the cliff. Although Sadie was about twenty feet away from the edge of the cliff, the governess still considered it too close for comfort. She summoned Sadie to come back to her on the picnic blanket.

Sadie smiled wider and began to walk backward. Growing more alarmed, the governess rose to her feet and yelled at Sadie to stop walking at once.

“Sadie, darling. Be careful, please. Turn around! The cliff is right behind you, darling, you’ll fall. You’ll fall.”

When Sadie refused to stop her backward motion, the governess began to run toward her, arms outstretched. She was sick to her stomach and terrified. She began to plead with Sadie, “Please, please stop.” It was as though she were pleading for her own life. She was pleading to be spared from this experience.

Sadie got to the very edge of the cliff. She stopped for a moment. Instinctually, the maid felt herself stop too. It was as though her propulsive movement might remind Sadie of her own seemingly unstoppable trajectory. Then, and most unsettlingly and most unbelievably, Sadie held up her hand to wave goodbye. And took one step back off the cliff.

Sadie recovered but had a broken arm and a concussion. She seemed very proud of her broken arm. It was one of Sadie’s first memories. She remembered thinking if she could throw herself off a cliff, she would be able to throw anyone off a cliff.

Deliberately. “Deliberately” was a word the governess heard herself repeating over and over in the following days. She repeated it so often, unable to have anyone take it seriously, that she began to wonder whether she truly had any understanding of the word.

The governess sat on the trolley with all her bags on the way to her mother’s home. For the rest of her life she would forever after be uncertain about the concept of deliberation and free will.

*

After this, Sadie was sent to school. She was the smartest in her class. She dominated in every subject. Her drive was not just for knowledge, in which case she might have found herself lazily daydreaming through her subjects. She wanted to be better than the other girls. She was as good as she needed to be to master and humiliate them.

She came back from school with her scarf wrapped almost up to her eyes and her hair a mess. This always alarmed her mother. She couldn’t understand what had happened. How had her daughter become so ruffled and rumpled? Sadie looked at her mother without a hint of expression on her face, the way she looked at most people. Sadie’s mother could be so infuriated by her daughter’s rudeness.

*

Sadie hated the sound of the piano and refused to learn it. She looked stubbornly at the snow falling out the window.

“I don’t like it. It’s too twinkly. It’s too pretty.”
“You can dance to it,” the tutor pleaded.
“No. I think music should be terrible. It should make people weep.

Would you teach me a funeral dirge?”
“For what kind of funeral?”
“That of a young mother who drowned herself when she was rejected by her husband.”

*

Sadie Arnett had no friends before she met Marie. Sadie had learned to read when she was very young. The larger the novel she read, the more she was able to disappear from the world, and all the people in it. Each novel was like a voyage she embarked on. She specifically looked for enormous books. Then she would be gone for a longer period of time. She might disappear for an entire winter.

She often wondered why she was allowed to read novels. The subtext in them always ran counter to the ideas taught at school. There were murderers and degenerates all over the pages. And they were often the heroes!

When she was called for dinner, she sat at the table, not really present, her mind still absorbed by what was happening in the book she’d been reading. She rarely made conversation with anyone, as she was clearly not interested. She deemed whatever they said to be pointless.

Sadie had the distinct impression her parents loved her brother more than they could ever love her. Her mother even eyed her suspiciously.

Sadie did not know why her parents were so disappointed that she was a girl. They didn’t have any hope for her the way they did for Philip. She didn’t understand how they could not see how much better she was than him. She was always ahead of him in all aspects of life, despite being younger. She had caught up to him by the time she was three years old. Everyone in her family regarded her precocious behavior as a direct insult on her brother.

*

Sadie began keeping a diary when she was eleven years old. It made Mrs. Arnett nervous how Sadie was always recording things. She watched the ink dance out of the tip of her daughter’s pen like the tail at the end of a kite. She didn’t know what made Sadie believe she was the arbiter of what was worthy of being recorded. When Philip choked on his milk at the dinner table, Sadie took out her book and jotted it down. Once her father was complaining, rather ungenerously, about a political opponent. Sadie took out her notebook to jot that down too. Her mother snuck into Sadie’s room one afternoon to get a look at the diary. Sadie was scolded for having a list of all the idiotic things Philip had done that day. It was wicked that Sadie had been judging her brother in that way.

Her mother at first decided to take Sadie’s journals away altogether. Sadie had such an intense reaction though. She seemed so pathetic. She begged her mother not to do it. She couldn’t live without the notebook. Sadie got on her knees and clasped her hands together and looked up to her mother in a supplicating manner. Her mother, knowing how much pride Sadie had, and so how begging went against everything in her personality, was rattled by Sadie’s level of passion.

She was ashamed she had witnessed this in her daughter. She would have been ashamed after witnessing it in anyone, to be honest. But it was particularly difficult to see an emotion so base in someone so close to her.

Later, when she contemplated whether Sadie had any feelings whatsoever, she would remember that moment. She didn’t consider it evidence of her daughter having feelings, however. Rather that Sadie would pretend to have feelings to get what she wanted. That was how manipulative Sadie was.

At the time, Mrs. Arnett relented but told Sadie she was only to write poetry or fiction. There was no good that could come from an eleven‐year‐old memoirist or political satirist, or whatever it was she thought she was. And to be honest, there would be no need for a female one of any age.

*

Mrs. Arnett was pleased when she saw her daughter had taken up poetry. She liked poetry herself. Poetry was very popular in that day and age. She thought poetry was inherently beautiful. By its syntax, it forced everything you put in it to be beautiful.

She asked Sadie to read her a poem. The young girl stood in front of her family in the dining room. She held her notebook in her hand. Sadie looked around. She knew this was a bad idea, but that made her want to read out loud even more.

The small crow is naked at night.
Black is its eye. Black is the sky.
There is no more difference between light and fright.
The small crow is naked at night.
Round in its belly is the rat’s eye
How many did you have to eat to give you sight?

Sadie had a look on her face. She knew her poetry was good. And she was proud of it. Even though she knew her mother was going to criticize it. She knew it was not the kind of poem little girls were supposed to write. She also knew the poetry little girls wrote wasn’t very good. She had no intention of emulating it. She was going to get in trouble for her poetry because she had made it good and different.

Sadie’s mother decided not to say anything about her daughter’s poetry. Instead, she nodded. And she gestured for Sadie to run along. From then on it was implicitly understood that Sadie should keep her writing to herself.

Every mother engages in an act of parenting they know isn’t a great idea. They allow something to slide. And this is the thing that causes the child to develop a personality and also all their worst inclinations and predispositions and habits. The mother’s neglect seals the child’s doom. Thus we can safely blame all crimes on mothers.

*

The wall of Sadie’s Room was covered in her collection of butterflies. She had gathered them over the years. Whenever Sadie did anything, she did it with a great passion. Her favorite part was killing the butterfly. She poisoned it, and its wings began to slow as though they were a pair of sleepy eyelids trying their very best to stay awake but growing heavier and heavier.

It is customary to be worried about an older child hurting a younger one. But Mrs. Arnett was always worried Sadie had designs on the life of Philip. Watching her daughter’s infatuation with killing butterflies made her worry for Philip’s safety. She needed to ask someone for ad‐ vice on her children. But she was too ashamed to ask. How could she go about asking whether it was normal if your children tried to murder each other?

Sadie never played with dolls. She did not seem to care whether they lived or died. When they were clearly in a state of distress, such as lying upside down on the ground with their legs in odd directions and their shoes off, she did nothing to alleviate their distress.

Mrs. Arnett found a doll hanging by its neck from a noose in the toy cupboard. Her mother thought she had outgrown her youthful sympathies for dolls. But Mrs. Arnett felt horrified for this doll.

Sadie’s mother sent her to play with other girls, hoping she would pick up some of their graces. She stole things from the houses of girls she went to visit. She stole food and desserts from the table. She didn’t eat them but let them rot in her pocket. The only time she seemed to have much to do with other children was when they invited her over to offer up a few words for a dead cat or a monkey. The animal would be curled up in the shoebox, like a slipper that would never find its mate.

Sadie arrived at the funeral of a cat wearing her black coat over her navy‐blue dress. It was cold outside. The ground was frozen. So the children had had trouble digging the grave. Their knuckles were all red from the effort. She brought a small Bible with her. It was useless, since animals don’t go to heaven. But the children appreciated any nod to ceremony.

After the cat was buried, Sadie took out the eulogy she had tucked into her breast pocket and read it to the assembled children. “Although this cat was not much bigger than a sock, he was loved enormously. Although he was named Gaston, he will be remembered as the Black Cat with Four White Paws by people in the neighborhood forever. He had a very funny meow. It sounded like a baby crying. It sounded like it was unhappy. Then we would check on it and it would be happy. And that made us happier. He had such a funny way of making us happy. As long as we remember, we will remember him. Because we always remember friends.” Sadie then folded the paper and put it solemnly back in her pocket, not believing a word she had just read. The snowflakes landed like tiny stars in her black hair.

Whenever she walked down the street and a child whose pet’s funeral she had officiated passed her, the child would often stop, thinking they were friends, and greet Sadie amicably. But Sadie would look at them coolly, as though she had no idea why they might believe themselves to be on the same level as her, and she might nod but would then move on.

*

By the time Sadie met Marie, her mother had entirely given up on her. She still hoped something about Sadie’s personality would improve so she would not hinder her brother’s marriage prospects. He had enough going against him without alienating an eligible woman with a dis‐ agreeable sister‐in‐law.

She allowed Sadie to retreat out of her line of vision. She decided not to observe her. As though she were a stain on the wallpaper your eyes eventually train themselves not to see. Sadie was safe in this space. She existed outside of her mother’s gaze. And she was content there.

And then Sadie befriended Marie. Her mother believed everything could begin all over again.

__________________________________

Excerpted from When We Lost Our Heads. Copyright (c) 2022 by Heather O’Neill. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. All rights reserved




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