The Woman in Question

by Elizabeth Heald
The Woman in Question by Elizabeth Heald

She’s in the kitchen the first time it happens. It’s early morning; she’s in slippers and robe while stacking meat onto bread for her children’s school lunches. She thinks of their small bodies nestled deep in warm beds, knowing they’re not small anymore, only to her. Spencer, Sadie, Sam. Her collection of S’s. In addition to the S of her own name, which is Sybil.

A bright yellow bird lands and yawns out a song on the blushed arms of a dogwood, causing Sybil to look out in the back yard and see someone swimming laps in her pool.  

That’s odd, she thinks. The children are sleeping and Jeff’s in the shower. Sybil cranes her neck towards the window. The person who’s swimming is a woman in a patterned one-piece suit very like a suit that Sybil once owned. Sybil further surmises that the swimmer she’s seeing has a build like her own, similar hair and the same bright birthmark on her right shoulder. 

She grips a slice of salami, contemplating, then puts her head to the glass. As if on cue, the woman stops swimming and looks up towards the kitchen—confirming. Sybil gasps and presses her fingers into her temples. Could it be herself that she’s seeing? She looks around the kitchen for witnesses.  

Sybil tiptoes outside and stands on the porch. She watches the woman, feeling strangely submerged in a subconscious state. There are footsteps behind her, and she turns to find Jeff in a dress shirt and boxers, hair wet from the shower.  

“Sybs,” he says, pulling a tie through his collar. “I’m looking for socks.” 

“Do you see this?” Sybil says, pointing to the woman in the pool who has gone back to her laps.  

“See what?” Jeff asks. 

“This,” Sybil says. “Her.”  

Jeff looks towards the pool, and just as he does, the water foams over and the woman transforms into a simple brown mallard who stretches its wings, fluttering up off the surface. 

“Look at that water,” Jeff says. “Call the pool service. That technician is useless.” 

Sybil feels a twinge in her gut. She watches the duck fly low over the treetops.  

“Sybs,” Jeff says. 

“Yes,” Sybil answers. 

“I’m looking for socks.” 


“That’s right.” 

“Look in the small dresser.” 

Jeff sighs. “I looked there already, but I’ll try again.” 

Jeff heads back into the house to look for the socks and Sybil walks down towards the pool. The surface has cleared; the water is blue and no longer murky. There’s no sign of the woman, no sign of the duck. The sky is the same clear blue as the pool, and Sybil stares up at it in a fog of self-doubt. 

It happens again several weeks later as she’s cleaning Sam’s room. Sybil opens the window to rinse pre-teen scent and sees herself jogging past the house in faded red track shorts.  

“Wait!” Sybil shouts—or thinks that she shouts. It’s more of a whisper. “Wait.”  

She rushes out of the house, chasing the jogger to the end of the block, at which point she realizes she’s still holding Sam’s sheets.  

“Mom!” Sam stands in the driveway. “What are you even doing?”  

Sybil looks at her eleven-year-old son then towards the self that is running and finds the jogger replaced by a large crimson deer with obsidian hooves clacking on the black asphalt.  

“Do you see that?” Sybil asks. “Do you?” 

“What are you talking about?” Sam says. “I’m late for basketball and I can’t find my shorts.” 

 Sybil considers the deer as it disappears in the distance, simultaneously worried about a stroke and elated at having transmuted into something so nimble and poised.  

“Mom!” Sam says again. “I need my shorts.” 

“Have you checked in the dryer?”  


“Well, that’s where I’d look.” Sybil watches Sam retreat into the house, then waits for the deer to return. But it never does.  

 Sitting in bed later that evening, Sybil attempts to read the novel her book group selected, but it’s hard to focus. 

“If I were an animal, what would I be?” She asks Jeff as he comes out of the bathroom. He’s holding his toothbrush and cellphone.  

Jeff doesn’t answer. He’s texting.  

Sybil waits. “What do you think?” 

“What do I think about what?” 

“What kind of animal would I be, if I were an animal?” 

“You are an animal. Humans are animals.” 

“A wild animal,” Sybil says. “You know what I mean.” 

Jeff finally looks at her. “Maybe a hen,” he says.  

“A hen? Like a chicken?” 

“Is this some sort of game?” He gets into bed, reads the response to his text. 

“A hen?” Sybil says it again. 

Jeff puts his phone down. “Okay then, a rabbit or maybe a moth.” 

“A moth?” 

“I don’t know. Why are you asking? 

“I just wondered.” 

“Why not just be who you are?” 

“Who am I?” Sybil asks him. 

“I don’t know,” Jeff says. “A lady. A mom.” 

Skimming the pool several days later, Sybil sees herself tending the jasmine that grows on the fence. She’s in cut-offs that no longer fit her and a tank top that was long ago torn up into rags. She squints in the sunlight and decides that it’s time to at least have a word. She sets the pool net down on the concrete and the aluminum pole clatters, prompting the other Sybil to transpose into a plump, silver squirrel that climbs over the fence and disappears into foliage.  

She’s at Sadie’s soccer game when she sees herself on the other side of the field, reading a book and eating orange wedges. The opposing team scores and, at the sound of the subsequent cheering, she transmogrifies into a colony of bees that swoops low towards the field then rises in a droning gold cloud. Sybil can feel the bees like an itch. As if there’s a small drift of insects embedded in some inner organ. 

The sightings happen more frequently. Sybil becomes accustomed to seeing herself across rooms, seated several tables away at restaurants, browsing at the supermarket. She notes that the opposite self is always several years younger and somehow more poised than who she is now.  

One morning Sybil walks in on herself in the shower and is slightly ashamed as she stares at her breasts, enamored by the perk of the un-weathered tissue.  

“Hon,” Jeff says as he sidles into the bathroom behind her. “Let’s not run the shower before getting in.”  

Sybil frowns at Jeff in the mirror as he reaches for his razor, disappointed that he can’t see her in the shower and what used to be. Turning back, she finds a thick orange snake slithering a circle in the shower pan before gliding down the drain. Sybil imagines it ribboning around somewhere in the guts of the plumbing. She reaches in and shuts off the water, listens as the last drops patter, then stop. 

“What’s up with you lately?” Jeff asks, his face framed in a circle of mirror he’s wiped clear of fog. She watches him shave in neat tracks. She considers the lines around his eyes, the soft scape of his chin as it curves into neck.  “You seem so distracted,” he says. “Just not yourself.”  

Just not yourself.  These words linger, along with a strange feeling of being betrayed that he’s assigned her a singular person.  She starts keeping lists, documenting the Sybils she sees, what they are wearing, and the ensuing metamorphoses into creatures. The days pass and the lists multiply. They spill out of her purse, the center console of her car, the junk drawer in the kitchen. She writes them on the back of her hand in the absence of paper. 

“Escalator, gray parka, koala? What does that even mean?” Sadie asks one afternoon, withdrawing a list as she rummages through her mother’s purse for Lifesavers.  

“It’s nothing,” Sybil says, recalling the tense moments she spent watching the koala amble off the escalator, praying its claws wouldn’t catch in the treads as they fed into the plate at the top of the steps. 

“Produce aisle, green skirt, iguana. PTA meeting, red blazer, toucan. Basketball game, tan slacks, giraffe.” Sadie looks at her mother. “You leave these lists everywhere. I don’t think you’re okay.” 

“Of course I’m okay.” 

Sadie finds the Lifesavers and breaks the pack in half, taking a mint from the center. “Dad says you’re crazy.” 


Sadie speaks around the lifesaver. “Dad says…” 

“Your dad says I’m crazy?” 


“He told you I’m crazy?” 

“Well.” Sadie sucks on the mint. “More like depressed. He thinks you should see someone.” 

“He told you this?” 

“In confidence.” 

“He’s told our fourteen-year-old daughter I’m crazy?” 

“More like depressed.” 

Sybil snatches the lists back from Sadie. “These are none of your business.” 

Sadie makes the fourteen-year-old face that says you don’t like your mother. “Okay. But what are they for?” 

“I don’t know. I’m just keeping track.” 

“Of what?” 


“Right.” Sadie rolls her eyes. “That makes complete sense.” 

After the conversation with Sadie, Sybil shoves all the lists into a large manilla envelope and hides them in the back of her closet. She sits with the envelope amongst all her shoes and a few crumpled garments that have come off the hanger, feeling protective. Of the lists, and of herself. Not the self she is now, but the self she keeps seeing.  

This makes her wonder if Jeff could be right. Could she be crazy? How can she be certain it’s herself that she’s seeing and not something imagined? Or somebody else, altogether? Sybil reaches for her phone and Googles therapists near me, calling the first one she finds with five stars. 

         “I see myself everywhere,” Sybil says to the therapist the following Thursday. She sits on a small leather couch facing a window that looks out over the river. “I’m dressed in old clothes and then I turn into an animal.” 

         “How old are the clothes?” the therapist asks. “Are they threadbare or tattered?” 

         “No,” Sybil says. “Just outfits I haven’t seen in a while.” 

         The therapist looks at Sybil. Her fingers are tented. She is portly and weathered, not what Sybil expected. “What sort of animal?”  

         “All kinds of animals,” Sybil says. She offers the envelope containing the lists. 

         The therapist studies them. “Have you had episodes like this before?”  

         “No,” Sybil says. 

“Perhaps in your childhood?” 

         “Not that I remember.” 

         “Did you have a happy childhood?”  

         “It was fine.” 

         “And are you happy now?” The therapist places the lists back in the envelope.  

         “Yes,” Sybil says. “I’m okay.” 

         “When you see yourself, does anyone else see what you see?” 

         “They don’t seem to,” Sybil says. “I’ve stopped pointing it out.” 

         “Do you fear you’re experiencing a hallucination of sorts?” 

         “No,” Sybil says. “I mean, yes, I’m seeing things, but I’m not afraid.” 

         “You like the things you’re seeing? You aren’t troubled by them?” 

         “I’m not bothered,” Sybil confirms. 

         “And how often do these, um, sightings occur?” The therapist tucks a lock of gray hair behind her ear. 

         “I saw myself in the waiting room when I came in.” 

         “What were you doing?” 

         “Reading a book.” 

         “And what did you turn into? What sort of animal?” 

         “A turtle.” 

         “How about now, what are you seeing?” 

         Sybil looks around the small, cluttered office, then out the window. “I’m fishing the river,” she says. “In a red canoe.” 

         The therapist glances out the window. She polishes her glasses on the hem of her skirt. “Are you lonely?” she asks. 


         “Do you feel alone?” 

         “I don’t think so,” Sybil says. “I have a full house.” 

         “You’re familiar with the phrase, alone in a crowd?” 

         “Yes,” Sybil says.  

         “Do you believe in past lives?” 


         “Do you believe in this current life? The one that you’re living?” 

         “I think that I have to.” 

“Life is about becoming,” the therapist says after a pause. She hands the envelope containing the lists back to Sybil. 

         Sybil looks at the woman. “I don’t know what that means.” 

         “It doesn’t happen all at once.” 

         “What doesn’t?” 

         “Becoming.” The therapist places her glasses on top of her head. “It can take a long time before you’re actually done.” 

         Sybil spends a lot of time thinking about what the therapist meant by becoming.  Does she mean Sybil should become something better? Perhaps a better mother or wife. It seems like there’s always room for improvement in that area.  

Sybil drops thyme in the sauce that she’s making and commits herself to adjusting whatever personal thing needs tweaking to become something domestically better than what she is now. She glances out the window. Sunset fills the sky with beautiful color and the light of the lowering sun reflects off the pool water, where Sybil now sees something floating.  

She stops stirring the sauce, drops the spoon on the counter, and rushes out to the pool, where she finds herself drifting face-up on the surface. The self that is floating is the youngest so far. She is wearing a favorite red dress Sybil owned as a girl. She looks up at Sybil. 

         “What the hell are you doing?” Sybil hisses. 

         The self doesn’t answer. She looks a bit startled. Light wind ripples the water and dapples the pool as she flaps her arms gently, turning in circles. 

         “I thought you were dead,” Sybil tells her. “Why are you wearing that dress in the pool?” 

The dress is too much, Sybil thinks. The dress stirs up memories. Whatever is happening with these eerie self-sightings, the dress in the pool is taking it too far. 

         As if she might know this, the girl in the dress stops her circles and turns into a bright scarlet crab. She sinks several inches below the surface of the water, eyestalks hovering, before she disappears altogether. Sybil kneels and sweeps her fingers across the surface of the pool. The moment feels somber. The dress was red satin, sewn by her mother and worn to a dance in eighth  grade. It was the first time she felt pretty. The first dance she went to. It doesn’t belong in the pool.  

Sybil can see her children through the basement sliding glass door. She stands and knocks on the door, but nobody answers. They’re all wearing headphones. And the basement’s a mess. There are pizza boxes with stale crusts and wadded napkins on the coffee table, half glasses of milk on the arms of the sofa, empty cans of soda thrown on the floor. She places her hand flat on the glass, hoping they’ll see her and feel some sort of sympathy. After a while she turns and trudges back up the stairs to the porch. 

 Sybil returns to the kitchen to find the sauce she was cooking has turned into a paste that’s stuck to the pan. Jeff calls a few minutes later to say he’s having drinks with some people from work. 

         “I want to have drinks with some people from work,” Sybil says. 

         “Ha,” Jeff snorts. “You mean you and the fish.” 

         “The fish died weeks ago,” Sybil snaps. 

         “I was kidding.” Jeff pauses. “I won’t be out late.” 

         “I made the sauce with the squash. The one that you like.” 

         “Ah,” he says. “Save some for me.” 

         Sybil puts cereal out for dinner and sits at the table, watching her children fight over the bowls and the spoons while sloshing milk on the floor. Her mind wanders—she’s bothered by the dress in the pool and the fact of the crab. Her efforts at becoming something more might be failing. And it occurs to her that she’s increasingly certain Jeff is having an affair. Someone in his office, Daisy Flick-Reynolds. It’s a hunch that’s corroborated by some dubious texts and photos of breasts she found on his phone. Sybil has yet to confront him.  

Boys will be boys, Sybil thinks. Or men will be boys. Something like that. 

Sybil falls asleep at the table, waking several hours later when Jeff arrives home. Bowls of milk and cereal litter the kitchen. Her children are slobs, but her heart warms a little when she realizes that one of them threw a blanket over her shoulders at some point while she slept. Wrapping the blanket close around her shoulders, she shuffles out of the kitchen and falls back to sleep on the couch. 

The sun is out when she wakes the next morning. Autumn leaves are on all the trees. The evening before seems like a broken moment. She’s not sure what this means. 

 Going into the bedroom, Sybil’s only mildly surprised to find herself already there, sleeping in the yellow pajamas Jeff got her for their first Christmas together, the ones she left at a hotel in Cancun. Jeff groans in his sleep, throwing his arm over her as she sleeps. 

Sybil has the urge to reach out and fling the arm off, to scream at the self in the yellow pajamas. But the self looks sort of peaceful.  

“What are you doing?” Spencer enters the room and the self that is sleeping turns into a sparrow. The bird flits off the bed and darts towards the window. Colliding with glass, it lands on the carpet with a sad, lifeless thump.  

Sybil turns to Spencer. “What do you need?”  


“Are you looking for something?” 

“Not really.” 

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for school?” 

“It’s Saturday.” 

“Right,” Sybil says. “Of course.” She looks at her son, sixteen years old and bones forming into something adult and masculine under his skin. There’s a faint mustache above his upper lip, acne on his chin. 

“You’ve been standing there forever,” Spencer says. “I thought you might be having a stroke.” 

For the rest of the morning, Sybil experiences a strange interior trembling, as if there are wings in her chest. She stands in the laundry room and stares at the clothes in damp wads on the floor. The laundry makes her feel lonely—all those shirts, shorts, and towels balled up and soiled—awaiting a wash. She should start a load, but it seems pointless. They’ll just end up back where they are. She considers doing dishes, mowing the lawn, or skimming the pool, but the story is the same—the mad circle of life.  

Instead, Sybil sits in her car, contemplating. She could head to the park and collect fall leaves, press them into books for a collage. She could drive an hour to the beach and wait for the moon to come out over the waves. She could roam into the forest and spend the afternoon foraging for mushrooms. In the end she steers her car towards the mall, buying a new dress that she slides on in the department store bathroom.  

She has a drink by herself in the bar at the adjacent Red Lion. The bar is dark, the whole place deserted, exacerbating the itch she’s got blooming. When the bartender approaches, she orders a double scotch on the rocks, which she downs right away, and then asks for another.  

“It’s early,” the bartender says as he sets the drink down. “You might want to ease up.” 

“I’m just getting started,” Sybil replies. Her cell phone rings, and she answers, giving the bartender a look that says to buzz off.  

“Hello?” Sybil says.  

“Where are you?”  

It’s Jeff, of course. 

“I’m having a drink.” 

“With who?”  

Sybil looks around the Red Lion bar. She’s the only one there besides the bartender. “People from work.” 

Jeff laughs. “Seriously though.” 

“Seriously though,” Sybil repeats. She rattles the ice in her glass and slurps. The bartender watches, either intrigued or disgusted. His name tag says IVAR. The name reminds her of old Viking ships, which seems sort of sexy. It also reminds her of jars of canned fish, which is not.  

“It’s noon,” Jeff says. 

Sybil says nothing. 

“Are you upset about something? You just took off.” 

Sybil says nothing again. She thinks of Daisy Flick’s breasts on Jeff’s phone. 

“When will you be home?” he asks.  

“I don’t know,” Sybil says. “We have a lot to go over, me and my people from work.” 

“You don’t work.” 

“That’s debatable.” Sybil winks at the bartender as if he’s in on the joke. 

The bartender blushes.  His hair looks kind of nice. 

“Right,” Jeff says. “The whole mother-is-work thing.” 

“What?” Sybil sets her drink down. 


“What does that mean?” 

“Quit fucking around,” Jeff says. 

  “I’m just getting started.”  

Again, with this line!   



“Get ahold of yourself,” Jeff says. 



 Sybil hangs up on Jeff. The legs of the scotch make lines down the tumbler. Looking across the room, she realizes there’s a woman seated at the other end of the bar, speaking to the bartender. The woman reaches up and caresses his wide maroon tie, pulling him towards her in an intense flirtation that results in a kiss. 

 Sybil’s a little bit jealous. She moves several seats closer, only stopping when she realizes that the woman kissing the bartender is herself. The she who’s engaged in the kiss is wearing the silky black dress that Sybil just bought at the mall, the dress she’s wearing right now. But what is she doing kissing the bartender? It does seem she’s lost control of herself. Whoever that is. Sybil consults her phone for definitions.   

Herself. This woman. That woman. The woman in question.  

Sybil looks back. She’s still kissing the bartender. It’s the kind of kiss that makes you uncomfortable unless you’re directly involved.  

“Hey,” Sybil says. “We’re not that sort of girl.”  

They, of course, ignore her, ensnared as they are in the height of their passions. Sybil considers a gentle tap on the shoulder, but her heart isn’t in it. Besides, who is she to stand in their way? 

The kiss ends and the bartender leads the other Sybil out onto the floor. He takes off his white button-down shirt but leaves the tie on, struggling a bit with the collar. It’s worth the effort for the tie to remain—a stripe of silky maroon that’s nestled comfortably in the downy brown hair between pectoral muscles. He reaches in his pocket and drops a few coins in the jukebox on the far wall. 

Sybil shuffles behind the bar and pours herself another drink, garnishing it with a lemon wedge, an orange and two bright red cherries. Eating a handful of martini olives, she leans forward with her elbows up on the counter, sipping her drink through three straws. She watches the two of them dancing to a song she remembers but can’t quite call to mind. The bartender (Ivar) has muscular arms and nice hair. He looks down at the other herself (the woman in question) with a gentle attention. It really does seem like he may be in love. This thought produces an ache inside Sybil. She wonders if there’s a way for the two Sybils to merge, so that she might be the one being looked at while dancing, or a part of that Sybil, if not the whole thing.  

“That’s nice,” Sybil says from the bar. “Ivar seems like a good dancer.” 

“My name isn’t Ivar,” he says. “It’s Rob. There’s a bunch of old name tags we keep in the register in case ours gets lost.” 

The Sybil that’s dancing pulls away. Her head tilts and her irises widen into the orange eyes of a cat at the same time her body bristles and thickens into that of a leopard. Its golden fur is ornamented by exquisite black rosettes that ripple over ropy haunches and back. It remains for a moment, paws on the bartender’s shoulders, then drops to all fours and slinks towards the bar. 

Sybil walks over, reaches down and hands the bartender his shirt. “I thought you were Ivar.” She says this as if that makes a difference. As if she’s ever known anyone named Ivar before. 

The bartender pulls his shirt on, buttoning it down over his tie. He’s a little bewildered. They both watch as the huge cat lunges onto the bar, strutting back and forth on the polished wood. Its claws leave scratches on the surface.  

“Is that your cat?” the bartender asks. 

“I think so,” Sybil says as the leopard stretches and yawns. 

“It’s a beautiful animal.” 

“Thanks,” Sybil says. 

“I’ll have to ask you to leave though,” the bartender says. “We can’t have pets in the restaurant. There are all sorts of codes.”  

“Mom! Where even were you?” Sadie says when Sybil gets home that evening. 

“And who the heck is Ivar?” Sam asks, pointing at the nametag she has pinned to her dress. They’re all sitting around the television, eating hotdogs and cereal while they stare at their phones. 

Sybil fingers the nametag the bartender gifted her before she left with the leopard. Something to remember him by is what he had said. He pinned the nametag to her dress and put his hand on her cheek. It was such a nice gesture that Sybil almost forgot she wasn’t the one kissing and dancing, almost forgot that it was the other herself. She left the bar with the leopard trailing behind her.  

“Ivar?” Jeff smirks. He looks up from his phone. “Why on earth are you wearing a dress? Do I need to be jealous? Are you dating a fishmonger?” 

“No,” Sybil mumbles. 

“Who is he then?” 


“It’s just so unlike you,” Jeff says. 


Jeff makes a face. “Disappearing like that.” 

Sybil is quiet. “Don’t be stupid,” she says. “I disappear all the time.”  

She’s in the bedroom, dressed in pajamas with the bartender’s name tag attached to the lapel. The kids are all sleeping; her collection of S’s all tucked in their beds. She thinks of an S as she moves to the window. If an S were a road that one were to travel, you would start at the top, take two large turns, and end up somewhere below. Unless the S were in cursive. In that case the journey would be longer, the S leading into the Y and the B and all the other letters that spell her name out.  

The evening is black except for the moon. Pressing her finger to the window, Sybil points at the faint celestial crescent. She steps back from the glass and sees her reflection. Sybil in her charcoal pajamas. The bones of a woman. The flesh. The skin. Her hair is pulled back, her expression is certain.  

“What are you doing?” Jeff asks.  

“If I were an animal?” Sybil whispers.  

“This again?” 

“Never mind,” Sybil says.  

Beyond the glass the leopard paces. Sybil looks closer, seeing more eyes in the darkness, blinking out from the hedges, hovering in tree limbs, crouching in grass. Not just a singular animal, but a whole glistening pack. 

Elizabeth Heald’s writing has appeared in Five On The Fifth, The Fiction Pool, Timberline Review, and elsewhere. She earned honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest and was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Portland, Oregon.