[Image Credit: “Nude,” Adelaar Rogers]
A woman doesn’t just stumble upon a name like Howling Woman, nor is she born with it. That kind of name is earned. A woman with that kind of name stakes a claim on the words used to define her. She writes them into existence so others don’t get a chance to. A name like Howling Woman is thrust into the world by the woman it beckons.
Before Howling Woman was Howling Woman, she was Phoenix. Just Phoenix. It was the name she’d chosen for herself at the age of 17. On the day she left home, 17 and with a name she had only just given herself, she had long dishwater blonde hair that she wore gathered together and pulled through the back opening of a grey baseball cap. She wore faded red canvas sneakers, baggy denim jeans with a hole at the knee, a plain white tee, and a leather bomber jacket that had once been filled out by the wideset shoulders of her father but hung loose on her athletic frame. Though she felt different on that day, a sort of different that cannot be named but only felt, she looked in the mirror at the bottom of the stairs before walking out the front door and saw only the same face she was accustomed to seeing in the mirror and the same squarish body wearing the same leather jacket that it had always worn ever since it had been recovered from a box in the attic that housed her father’s belongings – the ones her mother had not been able to donate or throw away after he died.
Her mother, once Linda Burnett, then Linda Doyle, and now Linda Billingsley, when not in her nurse’s uniform, wore bright floral dresses and a full face of makeup even on days she wasn’t planning on walking out the front door. Linda Doyle had only ever once commented on her daughter’s shabby style of dress. It was on the day she became Linda Billingsley.
“Do you think you could part with that jacket for just a few hours?” her mother asked.
Howling Woman was wearing the beaten leather jacket over a lavender bridesmaid’s dress and watching her mother finish applying a coat of brownish lipstick.
“It’s cold outside.”
“Well, it’s a good thing we are getting married inside then. You won’t need a leather jacket in a heated room.”
Howling Woman flinched at the word married and stared at her mother adjusting her hair in front of the vanity mirror, “Sure.”
Inside the church, Howling Woman slid out of the leather jacket and draped it over her forearm. One of her mother’s friends asked if she would like to have it hung in the coat room but Howling Woman wouldn’t part with it. She wore it draped over her forearm as she stood next to her mother at the front of the church in the last moments of her existence as Linda Doyle.
Linda Doyle had been Linda Billingsley for just sixteen months on the day Howling Woman walked out of their suburban home in Longmont, Colorado. She took with her only a duffel bag of clothes, a journal that belonged to her sister but had not been written in for more than six months, the $500 her stepfather kept hidden behind a shitty oil painting of a sail boat, and a picture of her thirteen year old sister from when she was younger. The photo had been taken by their mother on one of the only summer vacations the three women had ever gone on together. In the picture, Phoebe is stretched out on a tire swing, her eyes shut tight and her mouth open wide in a smile revealing a missing front tooth.
Phoebe had hair that was strawberry like their father’s and fell in soft ringlets around her pale face. She wore dresses their mother bought her and did her homework as soon as she got home from school and on nights Howling Woman stayed out late smoking weed or just wandering around the empty fields behind their house she would come home to find Phoebe curled up in her bed. Howling Woman would climb into bed next to her and in the morning would wake with her sister’s warm face on her chest, drool collecting in a small pool on her tee-shirt. After Linda remarried, Howling Woman never came home to find Phoebe in her bed. She wouldn’t realize the significance of this change until after Phoebe had died.
Howling Woman had been the one to find Phoebe. It was June and the summer heat had just taken hold of the neighborhood. The days before hadn’t quite been warm enough to turn the fans on and so the house felt engorged and thick with hot air when Howling Woman came home from a long bike ride (which was what she told her mother she was doing when she was riding out to the ravine to sit in the grass and smoke). There were no cars in the driveway when Howling Woman got home. It was quiet, the heat swollen door shaking in its frame as she pried it open was the only sound in the house.
She poured herself a glass of tepid water from the tap and went upstairs to take a shower and cool off. She loved the way the water from the showerhead massaged her skin when she was high. She liked the way her skin could feel each drop of water as it landed on her. Sometimes when she was high, she would stand under the shower head until her mother pounded on the door and told her she’d been in there for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and it was time to get out. She wondered if her mother thought she took long showers to masturbate because Linda always stood outside the bathroom doors with her arms folded across her chest shaking her head as Howling Woman pulled open the bathroom door. Her mother hated the way sex was talked about so openly now – on the radio in the car, and in commercials on television with women in pushup bras and fishnets selling hairspray. Once, when Howling Woman had asked her what an orgasm felt like, her mother had slapped her hard across the mouth without answering. Howling Woman never worried that her mother might think she was smoking weed on her long aimless trips outside the neighborhood and coming home high. The only fear her mother had was that her daughters would someday have sex. The look of judgement cast in her mother’s eyes as Howling Woman floated out of the bathroom was the same look her mother wore whenever they passed the billboard in town for the new women’s clinic. Her mother had grown up catholic and even though she was divorced, and presumably had been sleeping with her second husband before he was her husband, she was a real prude about the conversation of sex.
Howling Woman found the bathroom door locked when she got upstairs.
“Phoebe?” She called out as she knocked on the door not sure who else could be home with no cars in the driveway and surprised because Phoebe had said she was spending the day in the library. She waited, her ear close to the door, but no one responded.
“Phoebe, are you in there?” She waited, but still, nothing. “Open up.”
She felt her heart beat heavy in her chest the way it sometimes did when she smoked weed and got stuck talking to an adult. She could feel her throat closing against her will. She knocked on the door again and listened for rustling or breathing from the other side. She heard only a drip from the leaking bathtub. She reached for the key her mother kept on top of the doorframe and could feel her heart in her wrist and palms as her fingers searched for the cool relief of metal. As she pulled the key down and jiggled it into the lock her hands trembled and she wasn’t sure why the weed was filling her body with such anxiety.
The door was tight in its frame from the heat and made a gasping noise as it was pushed free. Strawberry ringlets stuck damply to porcelain. Blood stained water enveloped porcelain skin. The smell of Sulphur and iron and something rancid and sweet that Howling Woman had never smelled before hung thick in the heavy air. Her sister’s small body, breasts still budding, pubis barely beginning to sprout thin brownish hairs, belly still soft, lay limp in the tub. Howling Woman’s body retched at the scene and her mouth warmed with bile and eggs.
Later, she would wonder if it was hereditary. The ability to take your own life. Had she gotten that same gene from her father like Phoebe had, or would she be able to box things up and place them out of sight like her mother? She wished she were the kind of person who would have ran to her baby sister and pulled her out of the tub of her own fluids. Held her in her arms. Cried into her wet hair. Rocked her body as if she were an infant until someone found them like that and pried her sister from her arms. She was, to her own dismay, the kind of person who retched into her own hand and slammed the door on death too overtaken by its physicality — its fluids, its smells, its adhesive quality of sticking to memory.
The first person to arrive home that day after she had picked up the phone and dialed out, a hazy unconscious act she has no recollection of, was her stepfather, Richard “Dick” Billingsley. The clearest image in her mind from that day, second only to the one of Phoebe in the bathtub, is of her stepfather carrying Phoebe’s bare body down the stairs and placing her on the couch in the front room as they waited for an ambulance to arrive. He draped a blanket over her body after he’d set her down, but Howling Woman would always ask herself why he hadn’t covered her body with a towel or put her in a robe before carrying her down the stairs. Phoebe’s young pale body pressed against his white button down had left a wet, pink mark behind as he’d set her down. His squat hands had caressed her shoulders and hips and, had she imagined it, or had she seen him graze her collarbones and chest as he covered her with the blanket?
Days later, in the doctor’s office, sitting beside her crying mother, she would be certain that she had not imagined it. Dick’s hands had caressed her dead sister’s skin in a way that she was certain hadn’t been fatherly.
This is the story of her name. The beginning anyway. Howling Woman, before she was Howling Woman, had chosen the name Phoenix because of the story of the bird she had learned about in school. A story she thought she could apply to her own 16-year-old self-rising from the ashes of the home she had grown up in and all the people who had died there: Donald Doyle, Linda Doyle, Phoebe Doyle. As she got older and met others who, like herself, felt close to the story of the phoenix, she would feel it was cliché and would find herself a new name with less owners, but always she would like the name Phoenix for the way it felt so similar in her mouth to the name Phoebe.
Shelby Hinte is a writer and educator from the Land of Enchantment. She currently lives in the Bay Area with a pack of Chihuahuas and her small family. She received her MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University where she was the recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Graduate award. She is a contributing writer for Write or Die Tribe. Her fiction has appeared in Witness Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a novel about women and vortexes in the desert. You can read more of her work at www.shelbyhinte.com. @shelbyhinte_