Another Story About My Dead Mom

[fiction]

It is Wednesday, and we are going to the beach. Today is the type of hot you can taste, heavy with rot. Gnats swirl around our heads. I hold my breath so they go away. We are spilling down the steps of my house, terracotta burning the soles of our feet as we run to the car.

My sister, Cecelia, sees it first. “Sam,” she yelps, “I think one of your toys is under the car!”

Sam is lagging behind, sucking on a popsicle. His cherry-stained lips are pulled taut as he brings the popsicle out of his mouth to inspect the object. It lies docile in the shaded asphalt. I imagine plastic bubbling in the heat. He reaches towards the toy. It launches toward him.

“Snake!” He yells, dropping the popsicle. Sugar sizzles against the asphalt. The gnats fly toward it. I let out a breath. My fingers curl against the soft pit of my stomach, bitten-down nails pushing against skin.

The snake rears its head, its thick green body gleaming in the light. A stripe of yellow runs along its stomach. We are transfixed, frozen, burning feet forgotten. I want to touch the snake, feel the cool curve of its muscle wrap across my legs and pull me to the ground.

Sam breaks the trance. “Mom!” he wails, “snake!”

My mom is incandescent. She sweeps past us, scooping the snake into her palms. The soft frizz of her bleached hair is alight like some Herculean hero. The snake curls around her hand, nuzzling against her wrist.
“It’s only a garter snake,” she laughs. She sets it down in the grass next to the pavement.

My dad is silent behind her. He says nothing, and for a moment, we are calm, unfrozen— trip to the beach back in the center of our minds. We don’t see the shovel in his hands until he plunges it downward into the neck of the snake and twists. Scales peel away into soft pink meat. Blood spills across the street, moaning as it touches Sam’s discarded popsicle, now a dark pool of sugar.
“Watch out,” he scolds, “you could have been hurt.”

* * *

This is one of the only memories I have of my mom. She died that winter when a drunk driver swerved into her, throwing her car off the side of a bridge. Is it real, the way she magically materialized to save the snake, a lowly garter that couldn’t have hurt us if it tried? Is it a role I gave her as a grieving child desperate for connection? Have I embellished, or do I remember her honestly?

Today is the fifth anniversary of her interment, which is different from her death. It’s the day we burned her body and buried it under the yew tree in our backyard. At the beginning of every summer, my family holds a trite ceremony to honor her. We gather around the tree and hold hands and tell stories about her, the same ones we told at her funeral and later her interment. My dad likes to call it “the circle,” as if our grief is reminiscent of some freakish cult or secret society. “Speak so we can solve,” he always tells us as we cycle through circles and therapy offices and support groups. Our routine has become so rehearsed that I know exactly what sentences to begin crying on.

Now, I am in the bathroom, scrubbing at the clot of blood on my thigh. I haven’t had my period in months. I take a special pill just to prevent it. Yet, here it is.

I slide my underwear down to my calves. I want to rid myself of the blood. It feels wrong to be bleeding today, like I am showing my mom just how alive I am and how dead she is. How much blood I still have, thick and hot against my fingers, proof of my vitality. I push my fingers up inside my body, like I can dig the blood out of myself and pull it down my legs like a scarf.

I extract my fingers for examination. They are alarmingly red, not a deep maroon like my discarded underwear. I can taste their copper in the air. I turn my fingers, splay them and watch the blood bridge between the gap and break against my knuckles. Soon, blood hardens to the color of rust under my stubby fingernails.

Someone knocks on the door. I tug my underwear back on. I can’t get rid of all the blood. I wash my hands, watch pink bubbles swirl down the sink, and leave the room.

Sam is standing outside. He is not the brother from my memory. He has grown lanky and pale, grease dulling his once-blonde hair. Out of all of us, he handled the death worst. Depression hangs over him. If you get close enough, you can smell its reek.

“What were you doing in there?”

I brush past him. Being around him makes me shrivel and rot. I worry that his sadness will latch on and corrode me. Some days I can’t even look at him, much less acknowledge him.

“Get dressed,” I say. “The circle is starting soon.”

I go across the hall to my room to put on my dress. Sandwiched between dry cleaning sheets, it hangs in the back of my closet like a timid ghost. Two gold buttons glare at me from the left shoulder. We know what you think of us, they tell me.

I pull the dress from the hanger for examination. Except for the buttons adorning a shoulder, it is a sheet of short black velvet, last used for middle school cello concerts. It has been three years since middle school. Now, as I pull the dress on, my chest strains against the fabric every time I take a breath.

Instinctively, my hands find my ribcage. Air fills me, bringing my chest up and elongating my spine. To check that each bone is in place, I slide my fingertips across my ribcage. My skin is pulled taut against one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve ribs. After my mom died, I had this fantasy of cutting out my ribs, imaging that each would snap out smooth as a tree branch. I needed to hold them in my hands, feel them against my palm. I wanted my skin to be sleek, undisturbed by bone or freckles or stretches. I would be able to touch it and feel strength, muscle, softness.

For a while, I thought I had conquered my fixation. I hadn’t thought about it for years, until I lost my virginity. I had never been naked in front of someone before. The whole time, I was terrified he would see the small waves of bone against my flesh, that I would look like a tiny skeleton ready to be shattered.

Now, I touch my ribs constantly, just to make sure they are still there. I fear that I will wake up one day and they will be gone, twelve silvery incisions in their place.

A fingernail scratches against my skin, breaking up my thoughts. I pull my hand to my face.

My ring finger stares back at me. A silvery crescent is forming, the nail pushing past skin. Turning my hand so my palm peers back, I can almost see the nail.

I bite the white part clean off and spit it on my closet floor. Old habits die hard.
My sister Cece pushes the door to my room open. “It’s time for the circle,” she says.

Out of all of us, she is the one who looks least like my mom. If I wasn’t at her birth, I would think she was another woman’s daughter. Her hair and eyes are dark and placid, impenetrable. She is slow to laugh, show emotion. Her steady calmness is infuriating. Today, she wears a hand-me-down black sweater and powder blue skirt.

Her skirt swirls around her knees as she turns around, expecting me to follow. I do, letting my fingertips trail along the walls as we walk outside. Over our door is a small portrait of my mom, smiling on a pristine beach. She is smiling, dimples pocketing each cheek, and wrapping her arm around my dad. I look away and step outside.

The yew tree hangs across our yard, dripping clumps of gray Spanish moss. My sister quickly joins my family. I stay on the porch. I am not wearing shoes. I can feel the terracotta, cool against the soles of my feet. It is not yet July, so the gnats have just begun to wake, and the heat has not yet become unbearable.

It is snake season. I imagine I can see them writhing through the grass, winding out from the tree’s shade. They dance for my mom, twining together, paying respect.

My family stands under the moss. My dad and brother face away from me, heads bent together in conversation. My sister stares at me. My love for my family is a hole in my lungs. I miss our unity, the real kind, not the faux version my dad peddles out annually. Now, it physically hurts to think about my siblings. The emotion seems too overwhelming. If I get too close to it, I know it will swallow me like it did my brother.

I feel myself walking toward them. Grass brushes my ankles and dirt crinkles against my feet. I imagine the little clumps that will inevitably become stuck between my toenails as her ashes, recognizing me as family and latching on. I feel the blood pooling in my underwear. I want to reach all the way down through my throat and pull everything out, tickle my fingers against my ribcage and then keep pulling until I am empty because the hole in my lungs is gone and the blood in my stomach is gone and everything is just gone and I am just a little husk, smiling.

“Eve,” my dad says, turning towards me, “thank you for joining us. Let’s begin.”

Cece takes my hand. Her skin is cool, milky, unmarked by freckles. My other hand dangles limply at my side. Sam nudges it, questioningly. I let him take it. It is enveloped in his clamminess, like the depression is seeping out through his sweat and crawling into me.

My dad tells the story of their wedding at the National Cathedral, how my mom couldn’t choose between dresses, so she sewed two together the day before they got married. He grins and raises his eyebrows and furrows his brow at all the right story-telling moments, but his far-off eyes betray his boredom. Somewhere in his head, I see him tick the “gave them space to grieve their mother” box right under the “reminded them to do the dishes” and “paid their school tuition” boxes that make up some “Good Father” checklist he’s invented. Still, my brother begins to cry before my dad even finishes his story.

My sister tells a story about snorkeling from our last trip to Hawaii. While exploring a cove, my mom found an eel and when she told my sister, Cece swam back to shore because she thought she was going to be eaten. We laugh, and my dad makes a joke about how that was the fastest she’s ever swam. Hidden in the moss, the snakes lean closer, dying to catch every word.

I close my eyes. Stories of my mom seem like far off myths. She is a character we have created, full of projections and exaggerations and whatever else we can push into her.

I open them and everyone is looking at me. I try, really try, to think of a story. I should have the most stories because I am the oldest. I have memories of my mom, stories I know how to tell because I’ve told them before, but it is as if someone has taken a pair of scissors and snipped her right out of my actual mind. I know that she must have been in my life, going to parent-teacher conferences, taking me to playdates, comforting me after a nightmare. But I still can’t see her. She is only a silhouette of a glowing hero triumphantly clutching a snake. Her face, her voice, the smell of her perfume, is gone. My dress is too small. It pushes against my ribcage, choking me.

I feel a line of blood slither down my leg. The snakes in the grass and the branches are impatient, longing for a tale to sink their teeth into. Heat is creeping into the shade of the tree. Even summer is waiting for my story about my heroic mom, but I have none except for something that I’m not sure is even real.

I open my mouth. Feel my lips pull back. Feel breath fill my lungs. Feel my spine grow tall. Feel my feet dig into wet dirt. Feel my fingertips stretch, skin strained taut. Feel a deep sound, screaming up past my toes and knees and hips and chest. It hurtles past my ribs, scraping against empty lungs. It rises past my throat to fill the air.

I do not look at my family as I yell. I look at the tree and search for my mother among its whorling bark. Snakes meet my gaze with grins. Branches groan as they curve toward me, whispering more more more now now now yell yell yell.

I am becoming emptier, smaller, as the sound leaves my body and fills the air and finally, finally! I am smiling. Here, reader, snakes, summer, blood, is my story.

Ava Ratcliff is a senior at Phillips Academy Andover. A graduate of the Iowa Young Writers Studio, her work has appeared in The Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Chronogram, and New Moon Girls. She enjoys travel, reading, and visiting museums.