Mother brushes my hair, one hundred strokes with the silver comb, each night before I go to bed. She does it while I’m sitting at my vanity, counting off strokes one at a time in that bored, flat voice of hers. Sometimes I like to watch us in the mirror as she does it, a mother and daughter engaged in this loving act of care, but tonight Mother’s face is pale and angry and when she hits a tangle at the base of my neck, instead of pinching off the hair with one hand and carefully working through the tangle with the comb in the other, she yanks the comb down, the corners of her mouth pinching upwards in a smile at my anguished shriek of surprise. After that I keep my eyes closed.
Sometimes, when Mother is obedient, I like to comb her hair out, pretend that I am the mother and she is the child. I am always careful to start at the base of her hair and work my way up, never letting the comb catch on a single snarl of mother’s rich thick hair. But tonight will not be one of those nights. When mother counts off the one-hundred stroke she does it with a sigh, pulling the teeth out of my hair before the stroke is well and truly done. When I open my eyes she pulls some strands of my hair from the comb and places them in the garbage bin like a real mother should.
But when I go to kiss her on the cheek and bid her good night she recoils from my lips. And when I say, Good night, Mother, as she is walking from my room, she turns around at the doorframe. Her eyes catch mine in the vanity mirror and as we stare at each other she says, I’m not your fucking mother.
Mother is a dreamer, her head in the clouds. This makes her an indifferent cook; sometimes the porridge will turn out fine, other times I will have to discreetly pick out flecks of black from the dried out slop and try to swallow down what remains. Anything more complicated than eggs often turns out bad, the eggs are often bad as well. Father pointedly doesn’t say anything when these things happen and I know it is my fault so I don’t say anything either. One time, early on, she did something to the food, I’m not sure what. It made Father sick for days and Mother cried and cried like nothing else, a hopeless sort of sobbing, when she realized it wouldn’t kill him. I had to cook for a while after that and it was hard, making the food for me and my older brother, Jimmy, and Father. It never tasted right to me, though the others swore it was good a food as any woman could make. Father didn’t want me to feed Mother, wanted me to starve her down, but it takes a while to make a good and proper meal and in those hours, when it was just me and Mother in the kitchen, I couldn’t help it if food from the cutting board would tumble off in her direction. At the end of a week when Father brought a bowl of cold scraps to her, her first real meal in all that time and set it in front of her and asked her if she had learned her lesson she kept her head down so that he patted her on the head and said, Good girl, and let her eat in peace. He hadn’t given her a fork and so she had to eat with her hands, biting at her own fingers in her haste to chew the food she was parceling into her mouth. But halfway through her eyes flitted towards mine and in that fierce look she gave me I knew that she hadn’t learned her lesson, quite the opposite in fact, and I had done wrong.
I was in a mood the day we found Mother. We had piled into the truck together, me and Father and Jimmy, with me in the back like always. Jimmy put his window all the way down so that the gusts of wind blowing in upstream tangled my long hair and whipped it into a cage all around my face. Not that I minded. Tears were fluttering to my eyes and bile rising in my throat the whole ride. We drove for most of the day and the anger rode right along with me so that when we finally stopped for dinner, after a full day of driving and eating in the car, as Father and Jimmy tore into their burgers I found I couldn’t touch my food. Couldn’t conceive of the idea of hunger or of ever being hungry again.
Father didn’t say anything though I know he can’t abide sulking. He waited till he was done before he asked if I was going to touch my meal and when I shook my head no, knowing if I said more I would either cry or scream, he gave a nod to Jimmy, who snatched the food off my plate and ate up my food in one bite and then two. After that we got back into the car and drove.
But though Mother doesn’t think so, calls Father Monster or Garbage or that other bad word I’m not allowed to think, let alone say, there must be a kind of softness in him. Because the following morning when we found the place, a busy combo gas station-diner, he asked me if I saw anyone who looked like a mother. He had never let me pick before and I knew that was his way of saying sorry.
There are rules for how a mother should be. Father never set them down to Jimmy and me the way the rules of the house are written down, written in pencil with letters formed by his own hand on yellowed paper and taped to the fridge, but I know them anyway. A mother should be modest. A mother should be neither old nor young. A mother should be plump but not fat. A mother should be pretty but not beautiful. A mother should have a soft temperament.
All the mothers Father brought to us, even though they were different in their own way, all of them fell within this margin, all of them blended into this lump of mother-shaped women. So I knew what it was I should be looking for.
We waited all day to see mother. All day of sitting in that car, with the windows rolled down and the sweat rolling off us, watching the entrance to the diner, women coming and going, women of all sizes and shapes, dozens that could have been a mother. Towards the end of the day Jimmy got impatient and leaned back and told me to pick someone for God’s sake, and Father, rather than tweaking his ear for speaking so, the way he would have done if it were me, Father merely laid a heavy hand on the nape of Jimmy’s neck, immediately quieting him. That was another unspoken rule. Finding a mother should never be rushed.
There were still people coming in and out of the diner by the time the sun set, less women, but still some, but nevertheless at a certain point without warning us, Father turned on the car and we left in silence. I had never slept in a bed that was not my own before, but I spent that night in a motel where Father took out two rooms, what I thought would be one for him and one for us. When he pulled up to the doors of the room he handed me the key to one and he and Jimmy went in the other. It was my punishment to be alone I suppose but being in a room all by myself, lying in that big bed with the scratchy polyester comforter felt luxurious. There was a little soap wrapped up in pink paper in the bathroom and a toothbrush with a head wrapped in plastic and even though I knew that they must be there for my use I could barely bring myself to touch them, let alone open them.
I couldn’t ever remember being by myself in that way with no Father, no Jimmy, no Mother even to watch me. And though there were sounds that bled through the walls, the engines of cars past their prime crawling through the highway, the too loud TV of my motel neighbours, I knew that just across the way were my Father and Jimmy and that even if they resented the fact that because of me we were still motherless and adrift after one day of watching, if I were truly in trouble, if I screamed out in the night, they both would be there to protect me.
I woke up to a loud knock on the door, Father announcing that it was already morning and time to go. After a few minutes in the car I realized that we weren’t going back to the diner of the previous day and I felt a bitter sickness in the pit of my stomach, the unsettling acidic feeling of failure settling over me. But here Father’s generosity of spirit appeared once again. When we pulled up to the semi abandoned parking lot at the outskirts of a small town, the weeds growing chest high between the cracks in the asphalt, Father gave me a nod, quick and easy, his chin bobbing up and down in my direction. It was enough of a signal for both me and Jimmy who groaned loudly and then stared out the window in exaggerated indifference as if he were not terrible annoyed that Father had once again allowed me the picking.
I knew her when I saw her, even if she was all wrong, even if she was not the Mother that Father and Jimmy had been hoping for. She was distinct for one thing, a tall ropey lean thing, with the broad shoulders and slim hips of a man. She wore short shorts and a man’s tank top, loose around the armholes so that not only could we see the pink straps of her cheap pink bra, but the sides of it too.
She had pulled up to the gas station across the way, one of a handful of customers, and we all watched her, Father and Jimmy and I, as she unfurled her long limbs from the car, stretched her hands skyward so that her tank top rode up exposing a narrow smile of flesh around her midriff. Even though she was far away I could see that she was young. It wasn’t just the way she stretched herself, or the boy clothes she wore. It was that hair of hers that reached all the way down her back. It was the hair of a girl who has only herself to think of, not the hair of a woman whose life is a long chain of chores where long hair would only be a burden to be pulled, burned, stuck. The hair was like it was a separate entity from her: it moved when she was still, it trailed with the greatness reluctance behind her as she moved. It was the hair that made me point at her, unthinking and all feeling and say, That one.
And even though Jimmy cursed me and there was a hesitance in all of Father’s movements as he turned the car engine back on and we began to trail her car as she pulled away from the gas station, unaware that we were there, her future family, following close behind, I knew that she was mine. My Mother.
The problem with the young ones, Father said to no one in particular that first day, was that they didn’t understand their own fragility. As a person aged they became tender. Not about the wide world or their fellow man, but about themselves. Father knew of this tenderness but we were too young to know it yet ourselves.
We were sitting on the porch, Father, and Jimmy and me and we were ignoring Mother’s screams from inside that had early on taken the form of a string of demonic curse words and had lately curdled into an unending wordless groan. It was hard to listen to. Our home was small and there were only so many chores to do outside. So we sat on the porch and we tried to wait her out.
Take my hand for example.
Father presented his hand to Jimmy and me for inspection and dutifully we looked at it, ignoring the bellow that burst forth from inside the house.
Father told me to put my hand out and obligingly I did. My hand was lighter that his, and taught too. The ropey veins that protruded from his knuckles to his wrists were faint underwater rivers in my hand.
Once, Father began, ignoring the wail that had risen from inside. Once I had a hand and smooth and untarnished as yours. Think of that. Your father as a young man.
He paused so that we might think on it, but all I could imagine, even if I closed my eyes, was my father’s weathered face on a child’s small body.
It was my job to train Mother up. Her duties were domestic in nature and since I was the only girl I knew what had to be done like the back of my hand. To make Father’s bed and Jimmy’s. To clean the house, dusting once a day, washing the floors once a week. And of course she was to cook for us, the most dangerous and challenging part of her work for us as well as to her.
It occurred to me as I listed off the chores, reciting them quickly as her tears coming, that someone must have taught the chores to me. Some mother, all the mothers, had trained me in their way. And now I trained them back.
She cried in the beginning. Longer than I thought possible. More than any of the others. It was her youth, I thought as I watched her shake and tremble as she tried to form words. With Father she was like an animal, kicking and spitting, testing the limits of her chains, but alone with me she was different. She would try to calm herself, so she could have the words to plead with me. I could see she thought it was just a matter or reasoning with me, or rather of making me see what she called reason. She didn’t like it when I called her Mother, kept begging me to call her her before name, her real name as she kept calling it. When I kept right on calling her Mother she switched tactics.
I know you want to think the best of your Father, she would say.
But what he’s doing is bad. He hurts me, she said.
She was so careful with her words in the beginning.
Later, when she understood that allusions had no effect on me she started using different words, explicit ones. Father had taught me that showing anger was a form of weakness, but when Mother started telling me stories, stories of what Father did to her at night I had to put down whatever I was holding, the dishrag or a book, and walk out of the house. Had to keep walking until I was outside of her view and then I ran myself ragged, ran till I couldn’t keep my breath, and still there was so much anger inside of me that I kept walking, kept walking till I found Garbage Edge. So called because the cliff was where Father tossed our refuse too big to burn. I stared down to where the trees were, far below, where they grew so thick and voluminous that they swallowed up anything that would fall down there. I imagined what it would be like to fling myself off the edge, to be swallowed up by those trees, and when I was done imagining I picked my way home. By the time I got back it was dark and Father and Jimmy were halfway through their meals. Mother got up to serve me, so docile and sweet her leg chains barely rattled. I ate that meal slow and steady but I said not one word so that I finished before Father and Jimmy were done. And when I looked up I could see that though Mother looked as obedient as a dog there was a cruel look of cunning in her eyes for she knew that she had poisoned my thoughts and I would never be able to look at Father the same way again.
Things were different after that. Mother acted different around Father and Jimmy. Housebroke Father used to call it. She never rattled her chains, she never spoke out of turn. She was still a bad cook and a worse cleaner but she did her chores without a word of complaint. It was during the day, when it was just the two of us, that she was different. She talked to me less like a Mother and more with what I have come to understand a sister might be like. She told me, for example, about her life before. How she had left home and learned how to cook, not well obviously, but enough to sustain herself. That in the before she was a chemistry student and how much she loved to read books, the thicker the volume and the smaller the print the more easily she could lose herself in the words on the page. She told me about her own mother and her face looked pained when she said these stories but she shared them anyway, about how her mother was a fool for love, chasing one man after another, broken hearted after each relationship eventually broke down and ended. And she wanted to know about me too. About what life was like with Father and Jimmy. About where our mother was. When I told her she was our mother she wanted to know about our true Mother and then she had to explain . . . well, explain the way that children come into this world, something I couldn’t quite believe when she told me and was too embarrassed to ask Father to confirm.
It was the look on her face when she talked about her own mother and the string of successive men in her life that made me tell her about all the mothers I had known. It was hard to explain to her, for every mother had only that one name in common, but they were all so different and as I spoke I could recall each one, so that I spoke of Mother with the skewed nose, and Mother with the kind voice, and Mother who pinched.
But what happened to the mothers? she finally asked me, and I shrugged, but I could tell from the way her voice trembled that she already knew.
When I was younger and more heartless it didn’t seem to matter what kind of mother I had. But the last one. Oh the last one. She had been kind from the beginning. If she cried or if she shouted it happened so early on that I couldn’t remember it. What I do remember was the way she used to pull me onto her lap, cradling me against the warm soft expanse of her. I never had toys the way she explained other children had toys. But she used to fold the dust cloths in such a way that they had vague forms and sit me on her lap and do the voices. She never asked me for a thing, not once. But I began to want to do things for her and that was when the trouble began.
I don’t remember exactly how or when I discovered it, but I always seemed to know that Father kept the key to the leg chain pressed between the pages of a book on joinery. And the more I grew to care for the last Mother the more I thought of that key, tucked between the pages, screaming into my thoughts, sneaking into my dreams.
I didn’t mean to do it but one day, when Father and Jimmy were going to be gone all day into town to pick up some of what we needed I let mother for free. Just as soon as I heard the truck pull away I went to the joinery book and shook loose the key and as the last Mother watched I undid her chains.
She ran her hands through my hair so tenderly after I did it and then walked out of the house.
That was the last time I saw her.
I thought, when Father and Jimmy came home there would be hell to pay, but when they came home it seemed that Mother had already paid it. Of course I was still beaten within an inch of my life, a backhand from father that left a hand shaped bruise on my face and then whipped across my bottom till it was raw and bleeding but that wasn’t the worst. The worst was when Jimmy told me that the last Mother was with the rest of them, thrown into the pit of trees off Garbage Edge.
I tell Mother this. I don’t even realize I’m crying till she’s thumbing a tear off my face. I’m telling her this because Jimmy and Father don’t understand but also because I like her, because more than anything I need her to be fearful so that she’ll stay alive. But she doesn’t look afraid.
Delilah, she says, using my real name instead of calling me daughter. Because she thinks real names will save her.
Delilah, I can help you. Let me go like you let the last one go. Save me and I’ll save you. You’re a kid. No one will blame you.
I can’t, I say because it’s true.
How long do you think this will go on? She asks me. A man like your father . . . What do you think they’re going to do to you when you get older?
I don’t know what to say to that. I like being a daughter, being here with Jimmy and Father and the mothers. I’ve never wanted to grow up.
Daddy, I say, the word feeling strange and unfamiliar in my mouth. We are a formal family and Daddy is such a little girl word. But I want Father to think of me as a little girl and when he turns to me with a smile I know that my ploy has worked.
What do you think I’ll be when I grow up?
His face darkens immediately.
Has your mother been putting thoughts in your head?
I shake my head quickly.
I mean do you think I’ll be a good wife someday? A good mother?
The clouds clear and his smile is back.
The very best, he tells me.
Dinner is chicken with potatoes and root vegetables and it is good because I made it and unlike Mother I am good tempered and have a willingness to please and improve. Father says it is delicious and even though Jimmy has to be pushed into agreeing he eventually does with an ungrateful grunt.
And how does it taste to you, Ana?
Three letters and two syllables that change the mood around the table completely.
I love it, Ana says.
She smiles at me and I smile back, two women sharing a moment of joy across the men’s discomfort.
Ana, whom I love.
Ana, who is not my mother.
Ana, who by tomorrow will be in the pit at the bottom of Garbage Edge.