I like to imagine that this is the story of my birth: when my mother was pregnant, she used to press her palms to the taut skin across her belly where she thought my face might be. She imagined my fingers in my toothless mouth, little feet kicking in my fish-tank home. She wanted to keep me there, where she could feel me shift in sleep and hiccup. And when I was born, someone cleaned my face and swaddled me in a white cotton blanket before handing me to her. I let out a small cry and she whispered my name again and again. Her favorite, her stupefaction, she could not have loved another so completely.
But Ma has told me the true story so many times I feel it is my own memory. She was only seventeen. She pretended I wasn’t growing right there inside her for as long as she could because she knew as soon as she confessed she’d have to get married. The night before her wedding, she was thinking of my Daddy somewhere in that little Georgian town as she lay in the darkness of her childhood bedroom. He was older than her and already had a daughter named Sam, whose mother had gone off somewhere. She was thinking about how that child was the only reason he’d bought her a ring with a diamond no bigger than a few grains of sand. She listened to her younger sisters turn over in creaking beds and rub their shins with their hands, and she grabbed at her swollen stomach, thinking she could see the outline of that mass (her little tumor) growing before her eyes. She told me she used to dream about splitting open, from collarbone to thighs, and me leaping from the wound like Athena. That night she dreamt I was a snake child, with an arrow-shaped face and navy blue scales, winding myself around her knees.
She was too small to give birth, but no one thought of that until it was too late. The morning I was born, she was lying on a hard mattress and holding onto the metal bed rails, a sheet draped across her stomach and chest. Pain settled into her back, her hips, and she tilted her face toward the ceiling. A doctor came in and spread her legs by pushing her knees apart. Another doctor reached his latex-gloved hand inside her. A grown man’s hand in her girl’s body.
They looked at one another. The baby couldn’t fit and she wouldn’t be talked to—she felt another crash of pain and writhed on the mattress. Back then, they still cut girls to get to their babies. It’s a good thing she’d been numbed. She saw a pair of thin scissors flash silver before snip snip, they ripped her open and pulled me out. It happened so quickly; the man who’d had his hand in her moments before lifted me up like a little boy with a Cracker Jack prize. A nurse was busy stitching her up and finding clean sheets. She lay there—bleeding, stunned, deflated—and stared up at a flickering fluorescent light. When that grinning doctor tried to hand me to her, her arms fell to her sides as if boneless. I was just a girl, she told me.
* * *
It was the summer of 1964, when I was nearly eleven years old, that Ma tried to burn our house down. She poured kerosene from orange plastic jugs onto the lace curtains, the sofa, and the upside-down bouquets of dried white milkweed from her sisters’ weddings. Then she struck a match, ran to the front lawn, and sat cross-legged to watch flames stretch across the wooden porch, the screen door, the glass hummingbird feeders filled with cherry juice.
We should have known something was coming. Ma had been doing a lot of cooking that summer—candied onions mixed with oatmeal, egg whites and cans of baby food blended in a food processor, chocolate cake topped with jars and jars of sauerkraut. Once, she took me to the grocery store and we’d just put a box of Honey Smacks in our cart when she dragged me through the parking lot back to our powder blue Bel Air, without any sort of explanation. She started scratching her arms two at a time, up and down, leaving thin white paths with her fingernails. But when she began to speak to herself—that’s enough! and yes, yes, that’s true, but…okay, okay—Daddy couldn’t ignore it anymore.
He didn’t beat her until the fire, it wasn’t like him to do a thing like that. He started bringing a priest by the house. He’d meet Father Douglass at the door, thank him for coming, and offer him coffee. But Father always just shook his head and stood in our living room wiping his upper lip, fixing his collar, and flipping through the pages of a paperback Bible. Daddy would lead him by the elbow to Ma, who’d started sleeping during the day so she could stay up at night to lure gnats to fly ribbons with a jar of brown sugar.
I never watched the exorcisms, but I heard them: Ma snarled and smashed things, spoke with a man’s voice and stamped her feet. I twirled my Coke-bottle glasses between my fingers, listening, until the men emerged with sweat stains under their armpits. I left her alone until dark, then entered her bedroom where she was trapping flies under empty gin bottles. I brought her bowls of corn chowder and macaroni, and she French braided my hair on her bed, saying, Baby doll, you know I wouldn’t hurt you, you know that as the lines on her arms pulsed pink and the bottles of dead flies sat all around us. We should have known.
Sam rode her bike to the bowling alley in town most days, where she sprayed disinfectant inside the shoes and filled wax cups with Coca Cola. Or else went to her room where she painted her nails a delicate shade of pink with such tenderness. At school, people got confused and thought she came from money because she mended her clothes with a tiny silver needle and walked with her shoulders thrown back like she had something to be proud of.
I spent most of my time that summer in the forest or at the creek, where I practiced holding my breath for as long as I could and daydreamed about being a great war hero. I smeared Georgia red clay above my lip like a mustache when no one was looking, longing to squirm through rose-colored grass tall as my muscled chest and feed scraps of roast beef to my three obedient German Shepherds. I wanted to sleep in a white cloth tent with thousands of stars winking above me like shrapnel-splintered diamonds.
When I was tired of being alone, I went to Darlene’s. She lived by herself a few houses down the street. I’d come over on my banana bike and we’d watch Bonanza while she smoked Lucky Strikes with a turquoise cigarette holder. If I were her daughter, we could have rolled tobacco in deep brown papers that tasted like vanilla, her showing me how to pinch and when to lick. And she would say, Like this, babe. See, you’re getting the hang of it. She had a big framed picture of her daughter, who was dead, above her stove. When Darlene was in the bathroom, I’d press my little palm to that woman’s cheek, stroke the glass over her dark indigo eyeball, kiss the fresh piece of lavender behind her ear.
My Daddy, he was a logger, a fisherman, a carpenter—anything where he could use his hands and his back. He didn’t talk much, and didn’t seem very interested in us girls or Ma, or anything at all. We ate a lot of alligators, swamp rabbits, and snapping turtles which he brought home and hung from twine in the shed, swaying bloodily. Once, he shot a brown bear and had to bring it home in his pickup. We all helped to peel off her gray fat, which was saved to make gravy, then piled chunk after chunk of dripping meat into the big icebox out back.
* * *
When the house caught fire, we all came out coughing into the night air, me dragged by Sam, Daddy swinging his veined fists at Ma. She went down with two strikes to her neck and chest, and lay in the wet grass breathing dryly but not even moving her toes. I could only stare and stare.
By the time the police officer and fire truck arrived, the fire had already ruined the living room and eaten the wooden porch almost completely before dying out in an inky belch of smoke. Daddy stood, hands on his hips, and surveyed the damage: soot stained the walls like Rorschach tests, the glass angels on the bookshelf all had blackened dresses, and the carpet looked as though a cougar had gotten at them. He walked onto the front lawn, picked up a beam from the porch and threw it against a red mulberry. It cracked into thirds.
The officer talked to Daddy for a moment, turning away so I couldn’t hear. Ma was still laying on the lawn as the sun began to rise over our ranch house, first shimmering pink and then the color of a rotting orange. The officer took Ma’s hand gently and led her to his car, held the door open for her, and started down the dusty driveway.
I squatted to pet a chicken that had wandered from the backyard and felt Sam’s hand on my head, brushing my hair behind my ears over and over and over.
In the days that followed, I began to think of my mother as though she were dead. I remembered that she ate tomatoes like apples and the slimy green seeds got stuck between her teeth, which were straight and white as Barbie’s. I remembered that she pinched my cuts to make them bleed, to get out infections she said. I remembered trips to the grocery store when she fed me lozenges—medicinal red, wrapped in white wax paper—to keep me from escaping down aisles of toilet paper and canned green beans. I remembered her look of awe as she watched me cradle a plastic baby doll with painful vigilance. I remembered her fingers smearing Vicks across my chest and under my nose, and the ice breath which followed.
I slept in Sam’s bed every night after we’d brushed our teeth and slipped into our nightgowns. Daddy started carrying amber screw-top bottles in his pockets and snapped his folded belts together when he knew Sam or I were alone in the house with him. I finally asked when we could go to see Ma.
“We’re not going to the nut house. We’re not going there,” he said, filling a dented silver bucket with water at the sink.
“Is she coming home soon?”
He dried his hands on his jeans. “Don’t think so. And you don’t want to go there. Your mother’s probably chained up to her bed and wearing a diaper.”
“That’s not true.”
He shrugged lightly and heaved the bucket out of the sink.
It was three days after Ma left that Sam decided she’d had enough. She stretched black duct tape over cardboard boxes, which I held tightly against my body when she was finished. They smelled like dust and fresh pieces of paper. Her boyfriend came to collect her the next afternoon, loading up all her things into the bed of his pickup while she sat in the front seat staring into her hands. Daddy sucked an alligator bone while throwing rotten bananas on the ground for the chickens. Didn’t even look up when she finally drive off, both of her arms hanging out the window towards me as they went.
“She’s sixteen, I can’t tell her not to,” he shouted from the coop as I ran barefoot in the opposite direction as Sam.
There was a Chinese family close by and Daddy had told me to stay away from them, but I went to their house then and watched them moving around inside. I spied once from behind a sugarberry tree while they planted yellow tulips in their front yard, then stood with their toes in the dirt, eating fish eyes out of jelly jars. I was wondering what it would be like to have Chinese skin, to use jade chopsticks to eat lobster tails with garlic and butter, when I felt someone touch my shoulder.
“Ma, what are you doing here?” I said, my mouth suddenly so dry that my tongue stuck to my teeth. She wore an ugly flowered blouse and a skirt I didn’t recognize.
“They let me out,” she said, rubbing her bare feet, “because I’ve been so good, they said I could come home. Do you want to go on an adventure with me?”
I thought of her and me in the Bel Air, of leaving like Sam. But I also thought of my bedroom with its little horse figurines which I rubbed my thumb over like I wanted them to remind me of something, of Daddy cleaning his shotgun and heating chicken bones for dinner, of Sam who was gone and her little pink fingernails. I began to run toward the house, the half-burnt house, without turning to see if she were following.
I often dream of her still: that she is swollen with honey in purpled octopus arms—it holds her so tightly that her skin shrivels, her bones snap, her skull deflates, that tired balloon. Until she is tiny and breakable as an infant. Small enough to hold.
Sierra Lister is a senior BFA Writing, Literature, and Publishing student at Emerson College in Boston. Intermittently, she’s been a nanny, a cancer patient, and a racecar driver. She was a member of Emerson College’s 2014 CUPSI team (competitive spoken word poetry). She’s currently the editor-in-chief of two magazines published bi-annually by Emerson students: Gauge, a literary journalism magazine; and Stork, a fiction-only magazine. Sierra can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.