I start looking for her after I find her picture at Walmart. I’d taken a shortcut through the mirrors, paused to push down my hair, and saw her in the frame section. Twenty of her staring with green eyes. I don’t believe it’s her until I take a deep breath and touch the cold glass. This is my mother. She shouldn’t be here, on sale for $4.99.
Maybe, before she was reborn, she was a supermodel and our father never told us. This detail seems important but my father doesn’t hold with vanity that “puffeth uppeth.” In our family, only the second life is important; the first one disappears, clean as Himalayan snow, with three words and a repentant heart.
My head is whirling when I find a mop and dash back to the checkout to meet my dad and sister. My father waves my favorite candy bar beneath my nose and throws it into the basket. The sweet smells of chocolate and peanuts linger.
I begin to wonder if I have always had suspicions. I open my mouth then shut it. I do this a few times, but no one notices. My father is busy amusing Teal, pretending to sing into a ChapStick microphone.
Out in the parking lot we dodge rusting cars and white pieces of trash, stirred by the November breeze. Public school kids are on fall break and I see a few girls huddled around the vending machines at the front of the store. They attend the local junior high, but I don’t know them since I’m home-schooled. I recognize their blue and yellow band jackets and the fake confidence with which they flip their hair and thrust out bony hips.
“Shotgun,” Teal calls as she grabs the front seat.
On the ride home the heater throbs a hoarse song. Teal and I keep quiet; the radio is turned off which means my father is rehearsing sermons in his head. Outside, fields of clay roll over each other as we drive. The dirt looks jagged as splintered bone.
At home, in my room, I remove the same snapshot I saw at Walmart from the frame on my bedside table. The glass clicks loudly. Teal and I have the same picture in the same frame; this always seemed right to me since we have the same mother. I see with new eyes. The photo weighs as much as a large paperclip, but now I notice the bottom edge has been cut with shark-tooth jaggedness. I have memories of the woman in this photo. Those have to be real. Concentrate.
The woman in the photo is model-beautiful. We aren’t. Not my father, not me, and not Teal. The swing she sits in is blue but I don’t recognize it even though I have fantasized she pushed me on the same toy. Teal and I have brown eyes, more red than green, squirrel eyes, or maybe a Labrador’s. The woman in the photo has eyes so green they look fake. My father wouldn’t lie.
I was four when my mother died and Teal was barely one. I remember how my father looked when he told me how she died. His wrinkles were heavy and he chewed on a fingernail blue with grease. He said a snake bit her. That’s why we didn’t see her face in the casket. Her body was too swollen and her skin hard black like magma rocks. He said it happened right before we moved here, five years ago. He said he didn’t keep much of her things because it pained. I asked if it hurt, meaning was his heart broken. He said she died in a whole lot of pain.
The light goes on and off. I look up and my father’s indigo bulk is in the doorway. He sees the photo in my lap and sighs, his hands clenched into rocks. He tosses me the candy bar and tells me to say my prayers. A few seconds later I can hear his too-deep voice helping Teal memorize the Beatitudes.
I’ll look around the attic and put my mind to rest. All faith is tested, I tell myself.
A nylon rope dangles from the kitchen ceiling and I give it a tug. Mud flakes off the wooden rungs and I climb into the attic. Afternoon light pours into the room and the sunshine is alive with dust. Neatly labeled boxes ring the room like fungus, but since I am faithless, I search each.
Dad seems to have kept everything Teal and I have ever done or had, most of it ugly. I find a red coat that will fit Teal perfectly. I throw it down the ladder and it forms a bright crimson puddle.
My father’s head and shoulders poke out of the floor. Oil grease dots his left cheek like a birthmark and amber stains of transmission fluid spot his shirt. Preaching never pays much (unless you’re a swindler, he says) and during the week he works as a mechanic at a local garage. He told Teal he practices sermons on the cars but has failed to save one yet. His floating head reminds me of John the Baptist’s skull rolling round a silver platter.
“I found Teal a coat.”
“I didn’t know I saved this.” He starts to take the jacket and I stop him.
“I can get that.”
He jerks his hand away. “Head down and start dinner. I’m going to clean up.”
“Okay.” I draw the word out into two and he raises his chin.
“Teal asked if you have anything else of Mom’s?”
His hand strays from his beard and goes to his front pocket. My dad keeps a ruler in his pocket like most men carry a pen. The edge is sharp, gilded with a stainless lip to aid in the drawing of straight lines.
“No,” he said. Then, “Is something bothering you, honey?”
I shake my head. “Let me straighten up this mess and I’ll be down.”
Later, after our dinner of pancakes, I start sorting laundry. I find handfuls of salt in both pockets of the red jacket. The grains fall like sand and I grab the laundry basket to catch the spill. I decide not to mention the strange find to my father. He doesn’t use salt. I didn’t know we had shakers until I found some in the attic. I fill both, apprehension swelling in my chest.
I put the salt shakers in my underwear drawer. In bed that night I wonder what the salt means and try to attribute mystical significance to its appearance in my coat pockets. Everything happens for a reason, even salt is predetermined, and the hairs on our head are numbered.
The next morning I take the salt shaker out of my drawer and look at it. A fat chef frozen in a jolly midair jig. I toss some in my hand. The salt appears normal. I sniff and a few crystals fly up my nose. Coughing ensues. Then, my memory opens, hinges unlocked by the familiar scent, the crispness of smoldering.
A kaleidoscope explodes in my head and bright shards begin to arrange themselves into a semblance of order. Upon the backdrop of my eyelids the colors assemble in a paint-by-number portrait: I see my mother.
I throw a fistful of salt into the water and add the stiff angel hair. Stir. The bubbles reflect my unease. I normally stick with pancakes, Teal’s favorite. I call my father from his study and pry Teal away from cartoons.
“Wow,” my father says, sitting down, “the chef has outdone herself tonight.” He says a short blessing and we dig in.
After the first few gulps of food I feel the edges of my memory twinge, tweak, and pull up at the corners like a smile. My father eyes his food like a rattler is hidden amongst the noodles.
“Did you salt this?” he sputters, as Teal simultaneously bursts, “This is awesome!”
I cross my fingers beneath the table. “No.”
“It’s bad for my heart.”
My father pushes his plate away, and Teal asks for more, humming to herself as she eats. My father dumps his plate and slouches into Bethlehem.
Sleep is thick and warm. When I fall into dreams my mother meets me, crowds me with hot love. She tells stories I can’t remember, and she gives me advice in a language I don’t understand. Teal and I have her brown eyes flecked with gold and amber.
She asks me to follow and bids me look back often.
You can’t sleep without their stories, as different as day from night. They take turns, coming into your bedroom. Your mother tells stories on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while your father reads on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. When your mother sits next to you, your father fidgets in the den developing sermons for the rest of the week. He chews on the ends of pens and sports a ghastly blue mouth when he comes to witness your prayers. You’re not sure what your mother does when your father reads to you. You imagine she tidies the kitchen. She likes to watch birds so maybe she walks out to the porch and listens to their dusky songs.
You like your mother’s choices best, but enjoy the time with your father more. He reads from a slender volume called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. The stories are filled with saintly men and women who are punished like demons: they are burned to death on skillets and roasted on stakes like boar. Crowds cheer. Small explosions burst like popcorn when fat bubbles through skin and falls to hot metal.
Your father’s voice glides like a stream from an eternal source. He speaks in the voice he uses to woo congregations, a voice so sweet you feel like you have swallowed a bottle of cough syrup. You like the grim bloodiness of the stories, but dislike the martyrs. You picture the same pasty-face and drab clothes for William Tyndale, John Frith, or the virtuous widow, Wendelmuta. During their torture you imagine a blank face of Jesus, altered for sex. You can’t understand faith since you were given yours. You wonder why these sheep don’t learn.
After the stories your father prays. You liked this best. You expect to open your eyes in the middle of his prayer and see your bed floating or a lemony halo fluttering above his head. You never open your eyes.
Your mother read stories from Hans Andersen, a book she keeps hidden in your closet. You remember “The Little Mermaid” the best. This is the last story she read to you. There is a young princess mermaid. She hears of land where she will never live, a place where men and women walk on reverse arms and live and die but live again. The youngest mermaid is curious about this world, although her five sisters discourage her. One night she saves a handsome young prince from shipwreck.
Rescuing the prince changes the little mermaid. She hates the beautiful clams clamped to her fishtail to prove royalty. She hates herself. She visits the sea witch and learns she can become human and gain an immortal soul if she can tempt someone to love her enough to die. She accepts the bargain: she will trade her tail for legs and give up her voice.
“How can I make a man love me without my voice?”
The sea witch cackles. “I give you a gift.” A smoky tentacle caresses the line where scale meets flesh on the little mermaid’s lower back. “You will see the wisdom of this trade!”
She then flies with El Nino’s current and waits to be born as a girl. Every step feels like walking upon crushed glass. She insinuates herself into the prince’s court. With her grace she becomes the prince’s favorite dancer. He loves her as a prancing pony that obeys commands. His true love is a princess with an enchanting voice. Bitterly, the little mermaid dances for their pleasure on their wedding day, a dagger tucked into her corset. The little mermaid’s sisters beseech her to murder the prince with a bewitched blade that will transform her into a mermaid again. She refuses, and the next morning throws her precious body upon the sea coveting a voice. Any voice.
Your father would not approve of the stories your mother reads. She takes pains in making each voice distinct. The voice of the sea witch becomes the voice of your grandmother. The voice of the prince is the voice of your father, and the voice of the little mermaid is a voice you have never heard at all.
“What about her family? How could she leave her family? Will they get to heaven, too?”
“Hmm,” your mother says, “that’s a question for your father.”
Later, you ask your father as he tightens the sheets around the end of your bed to keep monsters out.
“Creatures don’t have souls. Where did you hear that?”
Your shoulders are caught in the taut sheets. He kisses you goodnight, his beard tickling your cheek like rainwater.
Now you realize, with a shock like drowning, their stories are the same.
Large chunks of memory fall into place when I sit still and close my eyes.
First, I see the coat. My mother bought it after fighting with my father.
Then I remember our only family vacation. The name of the cavern disappears but I remember the smell of rain and dirt. The guide was a tall blonde guy with a German or Austrian accent and muddy boots.
Most of the other people in the cavern looked like us. They were families with tired faces. A few couples walked with hands glued together. One man looked like my dead grandfather. Eyes screwed up as if looking into the sun, skin freckled with coffee-stain liver spots, and thin as a flagpole. He saw me watching him and winked.
We went deeper into the caverns, my mother holding Teal in her arms while I walked behind my Dad. The guide told us information about the names of rocks. Stalagmites and stalactites. Some of the rocks had fancy names: soda straws, ribbon stalactites, lily pads, parrots, and cave pearls. The parrot rocks were kind of cool, but real parrots would have been much, much better.
I liked an underground pool of water. The guide told us the fish were white because they needed sunlight and they had no eyes because it was too dark where they lived. They glowed like stars and I wondered if their skin was used to make the glow in the dark stars my mom pasted on my bedroom walls. About this time the old man came up to my dad and said, “You have a nice family.”
My dad agreed, and sort of stuck his chest out a little, looking at my mom and Teal. He didn’t know I was behind him.
“What would you take for them?”
My dad stepped forward and asked, “Did I hear you right?”
“What do you want?”
My dad shoved the guy and the guide ordered us to leave. His accent became much harder to understand. The old guy was gone when we left the tour. Of course, my dad repented in the car as we drove away from the caverns. He acted weird, made us pray, and asked God if he just failed a test. He also made us sing “A Closer Walk with Thee,” until we found a motel. He never told my mom the real reason he pushed the old guy. He said he overheard him take the Lord’s name in vain and couldn’t control himself. I don’t think she believed him but she was too exhausted to care. Teal was still breastfeeding and my mom’s breast pump had broken the first day out.
We were a regular family.
This happened a month or two after our vacation.
We were in the city. My father came to the dinner table, shaking. His beard was awry and I tugged at one of the coarse corners. He said he’d had a dream.
He pounded the base of his fork against the oak table, and my mother shook her index finger at him. I looked at him with more focus; I could tell he was waiting for a response.
I’ve had dreams before but never a vision.
“What was it like?”
He said his body felt on fire and he began to sweat. He was awake and asleep. A voice reverberated through his body like a radio on the highest volume.
“What was it about? Were there angels and corn?”
He tried to break it down for me as easily as he could. “There are too many bad people here, Deborah. We need to let them know how bad they’ve become. God is getting angry and He’s ready to hurt this city if the bad people don’t start repenting. We need to find the good men and save them.”
I imagined spankings all around.
“What do we do?”
My father leaned in closer. “This is the fun part,” he said. His voice was exaggerated like a cartoon. “We get to walk the streets wearing signs and yelling.”
My mother watched me and said nothing as I squirmed in excitement. She spooned the last of the peas onto my plate and passed my father the last piece of broiled chicken. She didn’t talk much during dinner, but sometimes I could hear her talking loudly to my father in their bedroom.
After dinner she began painting according to my father’s instructions. She decorated placards that covered the front and back of our bodies, a tiny one for me. They read: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD!!! REPENT! She painted them in the same manner she made dinner—with steady hands and unblinking. After painting the signs, she wiped her paintbrush against my hand and, seeming like a different person, chased me through the house until we both collapsed breathless on my bed. Her hair was a dark veil I pretended to look through until Teal woke up and began to whimper with hunger. We went to her crib and I began to tell my sister about our father’s vision. Halfway through my description my mother put her hand over my mouth, her eyes twinkling. She began to sing and hesitantly my voice joined her.
The picketing was a blur. Every weekend the town hosted a large open-air flea market, and we went there after my father’s vision.
“Expect derision,” he said to my mother, who then explained to me what that meant. “You’ll be invisible after the first few heckles. Just get the message out.”
My dad had my mother memorize a mini-sermon but she sounded like a parrot. I was supposed to yell, Repent, Repent, over and over. My voice became calloused.
My father’s sermon seemed original to me—repent or this city will be destroyed in a sea of fire and brimstone and you’ll be burnt along with it—but the few people who stopped to listen asked for a sign. A real one, not like the placards we carried.
“God is angry. Signs are for those too hardhearted to recognize the handiwork of the Lord.”
I was exhilarated with the entire affair. I saw people with purple hair, blue tattoos, nose and tongue rings. My dad counted down the days, but no one seemed worried when he finally yelled, “Tomorrow is the end of your world.”
No one else was convinced the end of the world was nigh, although several women hauling baskets of hemp cast indecipherable glances at my mother as she carried Teal, or pushed her in the stroller. That evening, my Dad bought me an orange soda, tousled my hair, and told me I looked pretty. He didn’t say that often.
The night before we were supposed to leave something went wrong. Someone knocked on the door, and my mother told me to get it.
Two men were standing outside the door. One of them was the old man from the caves in West Virginia. I recognized the smirk on his face. I didn’t understand how someone so old could have such white teeth. I was about to slam the door when my father came up behind me and stopped the door with his strong brown arm.
“Angels unaware,” he said as soon as he saw the old creep.
The two men nodded solemnly, their ageless faces gaunt. The one who was a stranger had crazy blonde hair that stood up around his head like egg noodles.
My dad let the two men inside and they went upstairs to his study. After the door closed, I followed them. I put my ear up next to the door. The spicy smell of the Lebanon cedars rushed to my brain.
“You were sent from God?”
The two men must have nodded their heads or flashed their credentials or something.
“When are we to leave?”
“Noon,” the geezer replied in his raspy voice. “He considers you a prince among men, but don’t test His patience. Don’t look back.”
KABOOM. Havoc downstairs. The front door splintered apart.
I sped away from the study before they could catch me listening. The foyer was bathed in alternating red, blue, and white lights, and the police stood heroically by the door. One officer’s boot crushed a pair of my tennis shoes. My mother had grabbed Teal and held her high in the crook of her neck.
My father came down the stairs alone.
“What’s going on?”
We’d had dealings with the sheriff before. Public nuisances, he’d called us. He was a short man with glasses so thick he didn’t appear to have eyes.
“Are you harboring two men?” he asked my father.
My mother came close to speaking, opening her mouth then pushing her lips together tightly, like sealing a Ziploc bag.
“Those aren’t men,” my father said, looking more at my mother than the sheriff.
The sheriff whistled, then laughed. “Well, then, what the heck are they?”
The sheriff guffawed and glanced at his mirror-eyed deputies, shaking his head. He gestured to one of the three men, and the officer unfurled a bleached white piece of paper.
“Are these men in your house?” The sheriff laced a fat finger through his belt loop, and I watched it turn white.
The pictures of the two men upstairs were on the paper, and some words I couldn’t read.
“No,” my father said, “those men are not in my house.”
“They shouldn’t be here,” the sheriff said. “They’re not natural.” Then, to his men, “Search the premises.”
My father loomed beatifically from the foot of the staircase and I started to go stand next to him. My mother told me to stop and stay with her, but I walked away and clutched his leg, and his scent of sweat and car reassured me. My mother’s dishes burst like fireworks. Books were ripped page from spine and dolls and stuffed animals decapitated. In three hours our house was destroyed. My father looked pleased.
At the end of the search, the sheriff sidled up to my father. “We know those men were here.”
“Those are not men,” my father repeated. “You will be sorry for this one day. Repent, and leave this family alone.”
The sheriff barked a laugh that could grate cheese.
“We’re not leaving until we find those men.”
That’s when the two strangers walked into the foyer. They stood tall and kept leathery hands in front of their belt buckles. I knew all the good places in the house from games of hide-and-seek, and they hadn’t been hiding in any of them.
The sheriff’s glasses took on light like two sleazy disco balls. “Okay,” he said. “That’s more like it.”
“Take the girls instead.”
I couldn’t believe my father’s words.
He repeated. “I will give my children to the Lord.” He looked at the old angel who smiled approval.
“No,” my mother said, staring at my father. “Take me.”
The sheriff examined the three of us with interest and one of the officers reached for me. I spat and kicked him in the knee.
My father slapped me in the face.
“Bear this cross with dignity.”
Teal started crying in gulping breaths and I began to sob.
The strangers moved. There was a flash like lightening and tidy piles of ash were left on the floor where the officers had been standing.
My father grabbed my chin. “I’m looking out for you. You’ve got to trust me, baby.”
He dropped my face and said, “Lily, pack whatever is left. We’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
My mother reached for my hand.
“Help me pack.” She led me away from him.
No one else came looking for us that night. In the morning we slept late. The angels spent the night on the living room couches and used all the extra pillows to cushion their wings. I heard my dad apologize to the old geezer for hitting him in the caves. The old man spoke of God’s mysterious ways and sounded distant.
We were readying to pack up my dad’s Bel Air when he came in to tell us the tires had been slashed. The strange angel told us we should walk out of town anyway, to give people a chance. My father put the placards around our necks and proclaimed as we walked. We were a familiar sight by then and no one noticed. He ordered us not to look back. The angels walked with us until we reached the main highway. They told us by the time we counted to three thousand the town would be in cinders.
I counted as we walked. I wasn’t tempted to look back. My mother held one of my hands and carried Teal with the other. I was wearing the red coat we had bought only weeks before. My father was ahead of us, carrying a duffle bag. That morning he had taken my hand and told me he loved me and he was sorry I had to witness the destruction of the wicked. He swore Teal and I would have been fine if we had gone with the sheriff.
My mother told me to be careful with Teal and handed her to me. She was always afraid I’d drop my sister. She squeezed my hand. She ran a few steps ahead of our father and her long black hair was snaky in the wind. It looked long enough to touch him from where she stood. She twirled grandly, her arms thrown open, her smile stretched like a pulled rubber band. My father grunted. A flash-fire covered the horizon all around and behind her, and my mother glowed genuine blue. I saw her skeleton, or maybe her white-hot soul. Something flew up and around our heads.
My father snatched Teal and began walking more quickly. He told me to hurry. A few feet away my tennis shoes sank in piles of salt. I stuffed the pockets of my red jacket, trying to shield my eyes. I didn’t want to let go and I didn’t understand. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. This didn’t happen, I said to myself over and over again, until my father walked back and touched my hand.
I wake up stiff on my bed, sunlight diffused by purple curtains. I want to draw a portrait of my mother. She had olive skin and dark hair. I think of her last minutes and hope my father saw her face. When she ran ahead of him, I wonder if he knew. In my memory, I rewrite her last seconds. I see her give him a huge smile, and then she turns a few degrees to look beyond his shoulder, to show him something else.
I walk into the living room and my father is in his recliner. He seems to be sitting on top of the chair, not in it. He has his Bible on his lap. Every step becomes less painful.
“Do you miss Mom?”
He puts his finger in the Bible.
“Why do you think she killed herself?” I wonder if he’s considered her death in those terms before.
He caresses the ruler in his pocket. At first I think he’s going to deny what I said or he’s going to slap my hand and declare blasphemy.
“I found her,” I explain. “She killed herself and escaped.”
“Don’t say that,” he says finally. He reopens the Bible and his index finger caresses the thin page. “It’s over.”
“Do you think maybe the city was destroyed and she died for a reason—maybe so you could learn something?” I ask.
“That city was full of sinners,” he says. “She decided to look back.”
“So why did I survive?” I ask. “Because of you or because of her?”
I want to feel bad for him because he looks close to crying but then he says, “You live because of me.”
I force myself to walk out of the room. My cheeks are hot; I’ve seen the face of two gods, only to be burned by both. I don’t want Teal to have to make the choices I do. I decide to go to Walmart tomorrow and steal every last frame with the picture of our surrogate mother. I’ll burn the photos and give the frames away as Christmas gifts. I’ll walk into my sister’s room and thank her for doing my chores. Then I’ll point to the picture.
“You’re beautiful like her, you know.” I’ll never look back.
Rumpus original art by Nusha Ashjee.