The Window Bride

Fiction / Carly Brown

:: The Window Bride ::

The day my sis­ter Anto­nia turned fif­teen, we took her to the win­dow. It was late June and the street out­side my uncle’s store smelled of veg­eta­bles gone mushy in the sun. Tin cans shone on the side­walk by my feet, shiny as locust wings. I kicked one with my shoe, watch­ing it bounce off a fire hydrant and roll under­neath a black auto­mo­bile parked near­by. Mam­ma would usu­al­ly have scold­ed me for that, but she was busy rety­ing the rib­bon around Antonia’s braid and smooth­ing down her new dress. The dress was a lacy thing that remind­ed me of our nice table­cloth, the one Mam­ma only brought out at East­er. It looked like you could rip it apart easily. 

There were sev­er­al women com­ing out of Uncle’s store, car­ry­ing bags of let­tuce and loaves of bread tucked under their arms, dab­bing their brows with hand­ker­chiefs and squint­ing in the sun­light. We pushed open the door and Uncle Sal­va­tore came out from behind the counter to greet us, dressed smart­ly as ever in a white coat and stiff collar. 

Buon­giorno, ladies,” he said, bow­ing to my sis­ter and me, as though we were fine women out for an after­noon stroll. Anto­nia and I gig­gled at being called ladies, although I sup­posed she was one now. 

He led us over to the store­front win­dow where he kept box­es of panet­tone at Christ­mas and crates of squash in the fall. There was a sin­gle chair there now, on a lit­tle raised plat­form, next to a bas­ket of lemons. Uncle’s store smelled like lemons that day, so he’d prob­a­bly cut some open already to make lemon­ade. I liked his store: you could spin on the high stools or get Coca-Cola in a tall glass and drink it with a straw, or you could order a Root Beer Float instead and watch vanil­la ice cream bob­bing in dark liq­uid until it dissolved. 

Anto­nia climbed up and sat down in the chair. She had her back to us so I could see drops of sweat slid­ing down her neck and dis­ap­pear­ing into the lace. Mam­ma thanked Uncle again for let­ting us do this. 

Fig­u­rati,” my uncle said. It’s noth­ing. Then he smiled at me and point­ed to a jar of can­dies wrapped in sil­ver foil. “Seems like I ordered too many caramels this week, Ros­alia. Can you help me with that?” 

I plunged my hand into the jar. The foil squeaked as I plucked one out and popped it in my mouth, let­ting the sug­ar sparkle on my tongue. 

Then I looked out the win­dow and saw that, out­side on the street, an old­er woman with a lit­tle boy in tow had stopped to stare at my sis­ter through the glass. Her skin was wrin­kled and browned like the inside of a wal­nut, like non­na before she died, and she had a blue silk scarf knot­ted under her chin. She looked Anto­nia up and down, per­haps with a grand­son or nephew in mind. 

My sis­ter wasn’t pret­ty like the women in mag­a­zines, with their cloche hats stuffed with flow­ers. They all looked sky­scraper tall and thin. My sis­ter was short, with plump elbows and a round face. She was shy, unlike me, and get­ting her to talk was often like pry­ing open an oys­ter shell. But she nev­er com­plained about any­thing and, of the two of us, she was the best at cook­ing lasagna, not to men­tion the fact that, to my extreme envy, she had also recent­ly mem­o­rized all the state cap­i­tals. But the old woman look­ing at Anto­nia now could see none of these things. 

I watched her nod polite­ly to my sis­ter and car­ry on down the street. 

Next came a man who looked a lit­tle younger than Father, maybe Uncle Salvatore’s age, with a nice suit and slicked-back hair glis­ten­ing in the sun. He stopped in front of the win­dow. I don’t know if Anto­nia was smil­ing at him, but he smiled at her before he walked away with his hands shoved in his pock­ets and his lips pursed togeth­er like he was whistling. 

It was then that I real­ized my sis­ter wasn’t going to sleep beside me any­more. Soon, I would walk to school on my own, brush my teeth on my own, sit in front of the radio, fid­dling with the dial as it gur­gled out sta­t­ic, on my own. Anto­nia would go live with a man like that slick-haired fel­low. I would only see her at St Leo’s on Sun­days. That was what hap­pened when Lena Maggiore’s sis­ter got married—Lena only saw her on Sun­days now. 

I turned away from the win­dow and walked over to the shelf, notic­ing peach­es piled up in a wick­er bas­ket. Two cents apiece, said a chalk sign in Uncle’s neat hand­writ­ing. I did some quick mul­ti­pli­ca­tion in my head. Two cents meant you could buy fifty peach­es for one dol­lar. Or you could buy two hun­dred and fifty peach­es for five dol­lars. Or you could buy one thou­sand peach­es for twen­ty dol­lars. But nobody would waste twen­ty whole dol­lars on that many peaches. 

I took one—its fur­ry skin in my palm felt like a liv­ing thing. There were dents in the flesh where my fin­gers had grabbed it. Then, with­out think­ing, I start­ed squeez­ing. I squeezed and squeezed it until its juices ran down my knuck­les, drip­ping down onto the wood­en floor. 

It wasn’t until I was squeez­ing so hard I could feel the seed in the mid­dle start­ing to press into my palm that Mam­ma turned round—”Rosalia!” She star­tled me by cry­ing out. “What are you doing? What are you doing?!” She swept over, swat­ting the seed out of my hand. It clat­tered to the ground. “Look at your dress,” she said, point­ing to the sticky stains on the hem of it. “What were you think­ing?” She turned to Uncle. “I am so sor­ry.” He waved away her apol­o­gy, but she fished into her purse and pulled out three cents. The coins clinked as she laid them on the counter. 

That’s too much,” I mur­mured, but nobody seemed to hear.  


The next morn­ing, Anto­nia said she felt sick and didn’t want to go to school. Mam­ma didn’t mind, espe­cial­ly since Anto­nia had done so well yes­ter­day and would be leav­ing school soon any­way. The fam­i­lies of two men had already vis­it­ed, ask­ing about my sis­ter, but most like­ly it would be nei­ther of them. Mam­ma said Anto­nia would mar­ry a young man called Giuseppe Sun­day who worked at Uncle’s in the storeroom. 

I knew this boy. He always had pow­dered sug­ar on his nose because his fam­i­ly had a bak­ery, and he brought over trays of can­no­li to sell at Uncle’s. They were not the best can­no­li in town, but they were good. My mouth watered think­ing of their crunchy gold shells filled with ricot­ta and choco­late chips. Giuseppe Sun­day was shy like Anto­nia. Nev­er spoke a word to me. I pic­tured them sit­ting across from each oth­er, silent, sweat­ing in the heat and star­ing at a tray of lasagna, gooey cheese bub­bling like the lava that I had recent­ly learned poured out of volcanoes. 

Since Anto­nia was sick, I was sent to school on my own. I car­ried my books pressed against my chest, enjoy­ing the stur­di­ness of my chalk­board and how the pages of the arith­metic book rip­pled in the wind. My teacher Mrs. Rag­gun­ti said I was quick with num­bers and some­times she called me up to demon­strate addi­tion and sub­trac­tion on the chalk­board in front of the whole class. I took pride in my care­ful hand­writ­ing: my 3s all pret­ty and curled like the lacy hem of a dress. I took pride, too, in how quick­ly the answers bloomed in my head. But, in six years, I wouldn’t go to school any­more. In six years, I would be fif­teen like Anto­nia and that meant sit­ting in Uncle Salvatore’s win­dow and agree­ing to mar­ry some­one like pow­dered-sug­ar nosed Giuseppe Sun­day. I told myself that six years was a long time, but I wasn’t sure about that. 

The wind picked up, car­ry­ing with it the sting of salt from the har­bor, and I hugged my school­books tighter into my chest. I tried to think of what my life would be like when I got mar­ried, but noth­ing came to mind. Oth­er girls at school mused about what they might wear on their wed­ding day or what they hoped their hus­band would look like. Giu­lia Messi­na said that she hoped her hus­band would look just like Dou­glas Fair­banks, the star of Robin Hood we’d seen at the pic­tures last year. It’s not that I was opposed to get­ting mar­ried, exact­ly. You don’t oppose the sun­set or the moon. They just are. They just hap­pen. But I didn’t want to leave school. 

I loved learn­ing about num­bers. And I loved count­ing up things in Uncle’s shop—cans of sar­dines, bags of flour. But the real­ly neat thing about num­bers was that, some­times, you could use them to count up noth­ing. I asked Mrs. Rag­gun­ti in class once, when she’d made me divide thir­ty by five on the chalk­board, what the thir­ty stood for. “Thir­ty of what?” I had asked. At first she was con­fused, but then she said that it was just thir­ty, just a num­ber. It could be thir­ty of any­thing: thir­ty dol­lars, or thir­ty girls, or thir­ty chick­en eggs. The class laughed at this, but I thought it was swell. When you’re doing arith­metic, you’re count­ing up any­thing and noth­ing at the same time. 

The breeze lift­ed my hair as I walked past Uncle’s store and gazed at it from the oth­er side of the road. I saw the sign hung on the door in Eng­lish and Ital­ian. Chiuso/Closed. I looked at the place where Anto­nia sat yes­ter­day, expect­ing an emp­ty chair. But it was not emp­ty. There was some­one there. 

A girl was sit­ting with her hands fold­ed neat­ly in her lap. Her white dress looked like Antonia’s, only the lace went all the way up to her chin. She had dark hair too, yanked back in a braid. I couldn’t see her face very well. Was it some­one I knew? 

I ran into the street to get a bet­ter look at her, and heard the screech and honk of an auto­mo­bile. I leapt out of the road as the dri­ver shout­ed curs­es at me. 

Mi scusi, sig­nore!” I called, but he was already off, smoke tun­nel­ing out of his exhaust pipe. 

When I turned back to the win­dow, there was nobody there. I pressed my fin­gers on the cold glass, peer­ing inside for some sight of the girl, but she was gone. The taps of the soda foun­tain shone like jewelry. 


I saw a girl today in the win­dow of Uncle’s store,” I said at dinnertime. 

Mam­ma looked up from her frit­ta­ta. “Who?”  

I didn’t rec­og­nize her,” I said. 

My sis­ter looked curi­ous but not threat­ened. Anoth­er girl in the same win­dow could be com­pe­ti­tion for the same eli­gi­ble young men, but Anto­nia didn’t seem to care. 

That can’t be true,” said Papa, but­ter­ing a roll. “Your Zio told me that only Anto­nia would sit in his win­dow this week. Gius­to, Anto­nia?”  

Anto­nia looked down at the veg­eta­bles jig­gling inside the frit­ta­ta. She shrugged. 

I will ask him,” Papa said, and the mat­ter was settled. 

It’s too hot for frit­ta­ta,” said Mam­ma, push­ing her plate away. “I should have made salad.” 


Uncle Sal­va­tore said he knew noth­ing of this girl. He said that unless some lit­tle girl broke into his shop to go sit in the win­dow, he had no idea what we were talk­ing about. I must have made a mistake. 

Un fan­tas­ma, eh?” He asked, nudg­ing me. 

At first I couldn’t remem­ber what the word meant, but then it occurred to me and I tried to laugh. Fan­tas­ma. Ghost

We bought a bag of toma­toes that Anto­nia would stuff with rice tonight when her new fiancé Giuseppe Sun­day and his fam­i­ly came for din­ner. As Mam­ma passed the bag of toma­toes to me to car­ry, I knew I’d spend all after­noon scoop­ing out toma­to guts in our hot kitchen. 

When we left the store, I glanced back at the win­dow and saw the girl again. There she was, sit­ting calm­ly in the chair, her hands laid across her knees. She didn’t look like any ghosts I’d heard of. She wasn’t trans­par­ent, but sol­id. And there was a faint hum of light around her. 

Mam­ma, there she is!” I shout­ed, drop­ping the sack of toma­toes and rush­ing towards the win­dow. But, by the time I reached it, she was gone again. 

Mam­ma stared at me with her hands on her hips, and then she jerked her head towards the toma­toes. I picked them up one by one, putting them back in the brown sack, feel­ing dizzy from the heat and what I had just seen. 

Enough non­sense, Ros­alia. After you help your sis­ter with din­ner, you should have a nap in your room,” said Mam­ma, as she pressed a palm onto my fore­head. “You don’t have a tem­per­a­ture, but I don’t want you to fall ill too.” 

I nod­ded, plac­ing the last of the toma­toes in the bag. It wasn’t non­sense. I had seen some­one there and, this time, I had rec­og­nized her. 

I still did not know what she was—a fan­tas­ma? A ghost? Or maybe an angel, like those that vis­it saints? But though I didn’t know what she was, I was cer­tain now who she was. 

The girl in the win­dow was me.  


At din­ner with Giuseppe Sunday’s fam­i­ly, I didn’t eat any­thing. I pushed Brus­sels sprouts across my plate and watched them knock into each oth­er like mar­bles. I mashed up the toma­to under my fork until it was prac­ti­cal­ly pas­ta sauce. My par­ents fawned over his par­ents, who frowned at our lit­tle apart­ment near the water­front. My father asked Giuseppe Sun­day ques­tions about how he would take over his father’s bak­ery one day. 

Giuseppe Sun­day seemed to enjoy bak­ing and talked for a quar­ter of an hour about why he pre­ferred to fry can­no­li in peanut oil, rather than short­en­ing. “It’s a bet­ter fla­vor in the end,” he said. His voice was qui­et, bare­ly audi­ble over the honk of horns out­side and the occa­sion­al screech of the seag­ulls. “And I think it makes bet­ter bub­bles in the dough.” But he admit­ted that he did not much like account­ing. He hoped to one day hire some­one “to help with the books.” 

Ros­alia is good at arith­metic,” said Antonia. 

The sound of my own name fright­ened me. But I felt flat­tered that Anto­nia had said this. I imag­ined sit­ting at the bak­ery counter with a pen­cil in my hand. Per­haps this bak­ery was my future: adding up how much we’d spent that week on sug­ar, how many can­no­li we’d sold. All that arith­metic I’d been doing at school—twenty-five divid­ed by five, thir­ty-two divid­ed by eight. Had it been prac­tice for this? All those noth­ings trans­formed into some­things in my head. Twen­ty-five bis­cot­ti. Thir­ty-two slices of black­ber­ry crosta­ta. I imag­ined spear­ing receipts in a row on a lit­tle spike at the end of each day. I thought of the door jin­gling as I called out to cus­tomers, “Come again!” 

Yes,” I said. “Yes, I could help.” 

Giuseppe gave me a small, encour­ag­ing smile, but then Papa burst out laugh­ing, Mam­ma fol­low­ing suit. 

Anto­nia, Giuseppe is speak­ing of run­ning his busi­ness, not school arith­metic,” Papa said and pat­ted Giuseppe Sun­day on the shoul­ders with such force that the small boy winced. 

My cheeks burned and I did not say anoth­er word for the rest of the meal. 


After din­ner we went to the liv­ing room. Mam­ma poured tea from her beau­ti­ful black pot with red ros­es, the one she brought over from Sici­ly. Giuseppe Sunday’s moth­er brought bis­cot­ti but they were hard as flint. Aren’t they sup­posed to be good bak­ers, I thought, suck­ing at a piece until it went gum­my in my mouth. 

When they start­ed drink­ing Marsala, I stood up. I said I had to use the bath­room, but nobody noticed when I kept going down the hall, towards the front door, down the stairs, into the orange and pink of ear­ly evening. There was a light, cool­ing breeze from the har­bor. Moth­er had tied a yel­low rib­bon into a bow at my col­lar and the wind made the loose ends rise up and flut­ter in my face. I swat­ted it away. 

Uncle’s shop was just around the cor­ner. I had to make sure of what I had seen. The girl’s face was nar­row­er than mine and she had more of a swell at her chest. But it was me. I knew it. 

Uncle once told me that we nev­er meet our­selves in dreams. If we do, it’s a sign that we will die. In dreams, we can meet kings, pres­i­dents, and cir­cus per­form­ers, long dead rel­a­tives, and famous base­ball play­ers. But we can nev­er meet ourselves. 

I round­ed the cor­ner and looked at the chair in the win­dow. Emp­ty. I was both relieved and dis­ap­point­ed to find nobody there. I stood in front of the shop for a few min­utes star­ing at the win­dow, but it was only when I turned to walk away that I heard mut­ed scream­ing and spun back around. There she was: the girl. And she was pound­ing on the glass. Her dark hair was wild around her shoul­ders and there were rib­bons on the floor, along with scat­tered lemons. She kept look­ing behind her, ter­ri­fied, like some mon­ster was about to charge out of the store­room and eat her. 

I rushed towards the front door and tried to tug it open. It was locked. 

I searched the ground for any­thing use­ful. I saw a sin­gle tin can, an apple core, and at the base of the fire hydrant—a smooth, flat stone. I grabbed it, wind­ing back my hand, like I’d seen boys in alley­ways do with their base­balls. Then I let it fly. 

The glass shat­tered, all of the shards tum­bling down like rain. Through the hole in the win­dow, the girl stepped out, glass crunch­ing underfoot. 

She didn’t look at me but ran right past, up the street, gath­er­ing her skirt in one hand so her ankles were show­ing. Then she turned a cor­ner and dis­ap­peared. I lis­tened for her foot­steps, but couldn’t hear them any­more. I could only hear sirens gath­er­ing, some­where far away. 




From the writer

:: Account ::

This sto­ry began with anoth­er sto­ry. One Christ­mas, my Uncle men­tioned, in pass­ing, that my Ital­ian-Amer­i­can great-grand­moth­er got engaged after her future moth­er-in-law saw her in a shop win­dow and liked the look of her. “That was the cus­tom,” my Uncle told me. “To put eli­gi­ble daugh­ters in win­dows.” My mind con­jured up an image of my great-grand­moth­er on dis­play in a store­front win­dow, next to tin cans and fruits and cakes. This idea, of stick­ing would-be brides in win­dows, was star­tling and unsettling—how it took objec­ti­fi­ca­tion to (almost) com­i­cal heights and made the mar­riage “mar­ket” literal. 

Sev­er­al months lat­er, when I went to write a sto­ry inspired by this anec­dote, I dis­cov­ered that it prob­a­bly wasn’t true. Nobody else in my fam­i­ly had heard of it. Indeed, nobody could even remem­ber my Uncle say­ing it that Christ­mas. I couldn’t find a record of this “cus­tom” in any books on Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, and my part­ner, who is from north­ern Italy, knew noth­ing about it either. My Uncle, sad­ly, has passed away, so I can­not ask him where he first heard the sto­ry. Per­haps he made it up. Per­haps I made it up. Or mis­heard him, or mis­un­der­stood. But it is just strange enough that it could have happened. 

What is true is that my great-grand­moth­er, Lena, lived in Bal­ti­more in the ear­ly 1900s. She had a bad, arranged mar­riage. Appar­ent­ly I met her, once, when I was very young, but I can’t remem­ber it. Just as my char­ac­ter Ros­alia is haunt­ed by the mys­te­ri­ous girl in the win­dow, I am haunt­ed by Lena and by the image of her behind glass, look­ing out at passers­by. This image feels very pos­si­ble, indeed very real, to me, whether or not it actu­al­ly happened. 


Car­ly Brown is a writer and aca­d­e­m­ic based in Edin­burgh. Her sec­ond poet­ry pam­phlet, Anas­ta­sia, Look in the Mir­ror (Stewed Rhubarb Press), was released in 2020. She holds a Doc­tor­ate of Fine Arts in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow and is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a his­tor­i­cal nov­el. Her web­site is