Here’s my mother’s story: picture two snakes fighting on the desert. No one is there to see it; nobody will care about the eventual outcome. Both snakes will bite and maybe poison each other and they’ll end up their lives like that, fangs sunk into each other’s body, both the meal the other wanted. Now, picture this: my mother is one of the snakes, and I am the other. My mother was hungry enough to bite, and I was the prey she longed for the most. People have first memories of their childhood, fond memories, but all I had was this first truth, before any memory could settle in: my mother had a hunger she couldn’t control.
My mother wasn’t my birth mother. Her sister was. But her sister was young when she gave birth to me, and my mother was already married, had enough money to provide for a child and then convinced her sister to give me up. Her sister, Shirley; my birth mother, my aunt—I never met her. She died when I was no more than a baby. OD. No one ever spoke of her. My grandmother was long dead by then and there was no one else to remember Shirley, no one except for my mother. Once, my mother told me about the day she decided she’d have me, by any means necessary. She went to visit Shirley and found her sister living in a shack that could barely hold itself together, wood as rot as Shirley’s decayed teeth; the place stank, dirty dishes everywhere, moldy food left on the floor, dog shit, raccoon shit, maybe even human shit. Shirley was skinny and bruised, but round with me, a tiny monster bathed in amniotic fluids, indifferent to either life or death. And then, staring at Shirley, my mother felt hungry; I suppose that’s how it went, although she never used the word: hungry. She merely said she had to save me, so she took Shirley’s hands and told her she could raise the baby; she would give Shirley money. She’d give her whatever she needed, if only Shirley would let her have the baby. Shirley said she couldn’t live with that awful thing she had inside of her. She didn’t mean me. She meant her past, her present: herself.
“Shir and I . . . we had a difficult upbringing, baby,” my mother would say, hoping it would be enough of an explanation. I didn’t know much about my late grandmother, except for what my mother said: my grandmother flourished when inflicting pain on others, and so her daughters grew up paying that price, the price of pain and scratches, of bites and screaming. My mother was stronger, though; stronger than Shirley was, or so she said. And then she’d pinch me if she caught me saying Shirley was my mother. Shirley wasn’t my mother: she was.
I don’t know why my mother wanted a child. It wasn’t about love, she never wanted to be loved or to love back, she never said I love you, those tricky little words; love simply wasn’t there, not on her tongue, not on her lips. She just wanted a baby, a need so primal that nothing could stop her. My mother’s life revolved around these primal needs; to hurt, to have, to hold. A hold over my father, what he did and where he went, and an even more absolute hold over me. For how can a child be anything without a mother? A child is dependable; a child can be bent to the will of that higher power, the adult, the Goddess. Nobody questions a mother’s authority, and so it’s easy to exert control and not be judged by it. It was her idea of parenting; this wanting, this possession of the other.
Exhibit A: a picture taken many years ago, which I now have in my hands. I was around seven years old. We were at the public pool, and I was wearing a newly bought bikini my mother had chosen for me. I hated the bikini; I hated the pink color and the tiny hearts on the fabric, like little dots of blood. My hair is painfully short in that picture, and my eyes are almost shut; the sun was right over my face and I was angry. My mother, however, hands behind my back, smiles and smiles, her blond hair iron-curled, her red lipstick on. She wasn’t wet, like I was. She wouldn’t have dared to dive in the pool. She was perfect and composed, posing for the camera, whereas I had my arms crossed over my chest. Looking at this picture again, I can remember how cold my wet body felt, goose bumps taking over my skin, despite being summer. I remember her fingernails digging in my soft flesh, as if to keep my quiet, by her side. Just a few days earlier, she had bought me the new bikini, and I had thrown a tantrum. I didn’t want the bikini. I wanted nothing that could please my mother. She didn’t argue or hit me, but she went fetch her big, silver scissors and made me sit over the bed. She told me not to move. She told me she could cut my cheeks if I moved, as accidents are prone to happen to unruly girls, and so I froze and she chopped my hair, the only part of myself I cared about at that young age. My mother thought that was a fitting punishment.
“Her mother did that to her, you know,” my father would tell me, once I was an adult and it was all over. “Whenever Yvonne did something your grandmother didn’t approve, she would cut her hair—and she would keep it. I have no fucking idea why.”
My mother kept my hair as well. She braided it and put inside a drawer, like a trophy. As if she was assured she was being a good mother as long as braids of my blond hair were hidden under her lingerie; that was her gift to me—the knowledge that parts of me would forever belong to her, as a bird would have its wings clipped if it dared to fly away. Once I stole the braids: I burned them on our backyard, their burnt scent—my own scent— filling the air, grey clouds above my head, tentacles of smoke dancing as if trying to reach the skies. My mother saw me doing it; she let me do it. Then, later on, before I went to bed, she cut my hair again.
My mother enjoyed the sight of babies. She would stop any mother or nanny passing by and coo at the babies sleeping a blissful sleep inside their prams. Babies didn’t seem to appreciate my mother in return, and would instead cry and fuss about whenever she tried to hold them in her arms. She didn’t care about the crying. She’d go on smiling, her shiny teeth like pearls. Like carved, smooth stone.
Many years later, when my mother lay on her deathbed, I told her I planned on writing this: writing about her.
“You should have told me years ago,” she said. “It would have spared me going through cancer. I would have just killed myself.”
“I don’t think you would.”
“When your child is a writer,” my mother said. “It’s like she’s holding a gun against you; it may take some years until she fires the bullet, but the shot is coming.”
“I’m not murdering you.”
“No, you are not. But I wish you had. And I think you wish the same.”
My mother’s last days were spent in the hospital bed. Her body seemed to shrink, to become again child-like, flat and soft. Her hair was now white, but her big, blue eyes remained the same, eyes that seemed to reflect whatever injury she believed the world had inflicted on her. Sometimes, however, her eyes would flash a different light: a light of longing, still a light of hunger.
I was thirteen when the first girl went missing. Her pictures were everywhere; her name was on the lips of every local news reporter. People came down from Portland to take pictures of our town and tell stories about how our idyllic life had been shattered by such a terrible event. Erica, the missing girl, didn’t attend my school, but every kid and every parent knew her. Curfews were implemented. Erica had gone missing on a Saturday, after kissing her mother goodbye and hopping on her bike; she meant to meet a friend at said friend’s house. A pale-faced girl with red hair, the friend. She gave plenty of interviews, always sobbing, and the cameras loved her, loved her tears, the face of innocence. A face not unlike Erica’s, who was brown-haired, a bit chubby, free from sin.
We knew about sin. We tasted it at night, when we would sometimes escape and meet by the football field. Sin tasted like bad vodka, like stale beer. It tasted like cigarettes stolen from older brothers and older sisters, and in that same spirit we shared them in sisterly communion, passing along the bottles or the dope, getting high on being young. It was usually just my girlfriends and I: all of us, laughing at the moon, werewolves waiting to burst from our human skin. Sometimes, there would be one or two boys; sometimes, there would be kissing and some groping, and the taste of sin in their tongues, but nothing else. My mother would have me punished for that, had she known; she would’ve deprived me of more than just my hair. Which part would she pick? Which piece of flesh would she cut open with her scissors?
But that was before Erica. After Erica, we didn’t dare go out at night, and would instead exchange weary looks during school, shell-shocked survivors from some kind of war. It could have been us, but we were the lucky ones.
“You are the lucky one.” That’s what my mother would say.
I remember waking up one night; high summer over us, my throat dry. I found my mother at the kitchen, staring at nothing in particular. She sat by one of the chairs, eyes widened, wearing a white nightgown. Her feet were bare and dark.
“Oh, you poor thing,” she said, but she wasn’t looking at me.
And then she was.
And then I took a step back, because there was something unspeakable in the way she smiled: trembling, as if she couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. She held her stomach, cold sweat over her waxen face. “Oh, you poor thing,” she said again.
Exhibit B: my mother’s dirty feet.
Exhibit C: I refused to acknowledge what I saw and went back to bed. My mother came along, shadowing me. I was already in bed when she knocked on my door and entered. She had her scissors with her and I almost jumped out of the bed, but my mother was smiling.
“Oh, my baby bird. It’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK.”
I had no idea what I was being punished for, but my mother sat by my side and started combing my short hair with her fingers. There wasn’t much hair to be cut, so she took something else instead. She held my hand and plunged the tip of the scissor’s blade into my thumb. I didn’t scream. I had no voice. She raised my hand, touched my bleeding thumb with her lips and sucked it. She sucked the blood gently, like giving me a kiss. But then she frowned. She let go of my hand, her face contorted with anger. What had I done now? My mother got up, scissors in hands, and left. Left me alone, with my bleeding thumb, pulsing with pain.
I told my father what she had done.
“You can’t piss her off,” he told me. “Jesus Christ.”
“I didn’t piss her off—she cut me. She just… she cut me. Look. Look.” And I would show him my swollen thumb, the evidence of my mother’s crime.
“She meant nothing by that. It was an accident,” my father said, refusing to look at my cut skin. He gave me a Band-Aid. He said I probably wouldn’t need a shot.
Nowadays, whenever I’m in town, I meet my father at a diner, if we have the time. He smokes, we drink and our conversation is always trivial—the news, the government, the new book he’s trying to read, the new book I’m writing. We never dare venturing the subjects we should keep buried. But there comes a day when he must show me the path to salvation:
“You know, you’ll need to forgive Yvonne. Eventually. God knows I had to, and so do you. You can’t go on with your life without forgiveness. It’s a fucking nightmare, honey.”
“I couldn’t give a shit, dad,” I tell him. My father is religious, now. He found Christ or Buda or Osho. He’s whatever he needs to be in order to live with himself. He’s also remarried. She’s a good woman, my father’s new wife; plump and happy and overflowing with positive thinking. She has two grown sons, and she’s always coming up with excuses to introduce us, and I always, as politely as I can, refuse to indulge her. I want nothing to do with my father’s new family.
“It will eat you slowly,” my father tells me. “Like a fucking disease. Like a fucking parasite.”
“It already did,” I say. Refusing forgiveness is my last stand.
Fourteen: my age when my mother was caught trying to take away a child who had wandered away from her parents at the mall. She had the girl by her hand, a girl that could be her daughter, and was leaving the particular store when a guard stopped her; the child wasn’t crying, but happily sucking on a lollipop, and my mother held her head high, believing herself above. She didn’t protest. She was too proud to make a scene, and instead stretched her arms, sighed and let the police have her.
Erica wasn’t the first. Erica wasn’t the last.
They found a little boy buried in the woods near our house. They found a baby girl about three years old, some of her bones licked clean. My mother told them what they wanted to hear: about the flesh and the blood, about the taste. Her face, her immaculate face, was now on the newspaper, side by side with Erica’s and the other victim’s. She told them she would pretend to be in need of some help; help with her groceries, help trying to find an address. And the children would help her; they would be nice to the beautiful white lady who could never ham then. Until she did. She said the younger kids were easier; they would trust her in the minute she handed them something sweet. Children too have cravings.
I spent countless days shut inside our house. I vomited whenever I tried to eat something, thinking about babies and blood. My father and I wouldn’t speak, as my father was rarely at home; he was rounding up lawyers, trying to save whatever was left of his wife.
My braids: the police took them when they searched my parents’ bedroom.
“Those are mine,” I told them, as I stood by the door, bracing myself inside my pajamas.
But they weren’t only mine. There were dark braids hidden inside other drawers. There were baby teeth. They had me questioned: what did I know? Had I been hurt?
“Frequently,” I said. “But not like—”
I couldn’t finish.
Didn’t you realize there was something weird going on? Didn’t you ever suspect anything?
“My mother is crazy,” I told them.
My mother was crazy.
When people ask my why I write the things I do, I have to explain that my mother ate children. That’s why I am who I am and that’s why my words come out as they do.
When I told her I was going to write about her, she said something else: she said she, too, had a story to share, since we were on that note.
“I had a brother, once. A baby brother. His name was Leonard. Leonard was born after Shirley.” Shirley. My birth mother. “A little angel, he was. All round, all pink. But he’d cry so loud, and Mama wouldn’t have any of that. So she’d lock him inside a trunk, and would only let him out when he stopped crying. She enjoyed so much, locking him up, that one day . . . ” My mother’s eyes were looking for something—something above her, something that could be flying, like a butterfly. “She forgot about him. And then she forgot again. And then she made us promise we would forget about him every day, no matter how much he cried or screamed. And then, one week later, we opened the trunk—and there he was. My little bird. No flesh hanging on his bones. And I felt something empty inside of me—my stomach was growling. Where was all the flesh? Where was all that softness? Oh, I wanted him back so much—just so I could eat him and keep him safe, right here,” and she touched her womb—her womb ragged by the cancer, lumpy and hard. A nurse was listening to her story, her expression of pure disgust and shock. Security was always nearby, even though my mother posed no danger. She could barely walk by herself, but her words could follow people home. Her words would always follow me, especially if I put them on paper, and she seemed to enjoy the idea.
“Will you tell my story?”
“Do you hate me, baby bird?” she asked me.
I said: “I feel nothing.”
And I kept feeling nothing even after my mother died.
I kept feeling nothing until one day, unable to sleep, I went to my tiny bathroom and sat over the toilet lid, crying over so many things, and grabbed a small, silver scissor I had. I cut my index finger. Just a nip. I put my finger inside my mouth and tasted the blood and cried some more. I cried like a child sucking on something for comfort.
“They tasted so good,” my mother said to me, the last time I ever saw her alive. “They tasted like nothing I had ever tasted before.”
But I tasted only of metal. It must be the reason why my mother never tried to have my flesh: I tasted of herself. I tasted of her poison.