HALFWAY BETWEEN THE CITY and the village, the ground breaks up. Concrete turns into bricks, earth into sand, strangers into trees. The sand feigns a proximity to the open sea, but this is lake country even though the birch trees are hiding them from our view. The lakes my mother bathed in as a child are stagnant myths girdled by reed and memory.
No one asks to see our tickets on the train, but my mother holds them in her sweaty hands, smudging our destination until the letters blur like a face in the corner of a memory.
She tells me the names of the lakes we cannot see, shadow and sun hitting her face with the rush of flip-book pages. One moment she’s my mother, the next she’s a passenger.
I close my eyes against a headache. I can feel it growing inside me like another birch tree, the trunk pushing through my stomach, bark peeling, branching off, straining against my temples, twigs and leaves chafing the crest of my head.
“You think too much,” my mother says. “Thoughts are like fruit. You hold on to them too long and the flies come buzzing, going round and round. Your teeth are yellow, by the way.”
When she first brings up the trip to her birthplace, I think of the possibilities of what and who we might become. I think in the language of myth. I think Demeter and Persephone, an umbilical cord unwinding, a diver’s buoy line overcoming the underworld.
But now my mother is sitting across from me.
“Your face is all puffy. Here, have some water!”
I open my eyes and drink what I’ve lost in sweat, thinking in the language of evaporation, feeling my mother’s presence expand whenever she’s talking about the dead.
Sitting with her legs wide apart in white ducks, pushing out her ovate breasts and stomach, her happiness has a lack of concern that reminds me of old men spitting in the street.
The train stops at the village where my mother was born. She was a child here, wearing a mother’s knits in winter, a mother’s stitches in summer.
The weed on the platform has the thick, knobbly knees of playground bullies and the station house is derelict. Through its window bars, I see an antique penny scale, its platform empty, the needle in its round face stuck at some impossible weight.
We walk down an avenue of linden trees surrounded by brown blankets of harvested fields. Rough cobblestones push into the arches of our feet, making us hobble through the landscape as if we are animals used to stretching our wings instead of our webbed feet.
Only two or three cars pass us by, drivers slowing down, getting an eyeful of two women balancing their differences: one round, one lean; one younger, one older; one looking forward, the other inward.
After fifteen minutes, the cobblestones peter out and the ground turns part sickly yellow, part black—almost like ash, I think, digging my toe into the soft ground.
“How come there’s so much sand around if there’s no sea?” I want to ask, but my mother cannot stop talking.
I have her mouth, but I am her ears.
She talks about her mother. About her mother’s mother. About the butcher, the baker, and someone called Backpack Bull.
“He used to tour the villages on foot to inseminate the cows.”
“Did he bring a bull?”
I think in the language of dirt-crusted nails, the language of a man leading his useful charge by a thick cord that chafes the bull’s head.
Gritty brick buildings with inbred, close-set windows appear, patches of long-gone rainwater rising like the fists of lost fights. The prickly ears of dogs on signs warn us not to trespass these gloomy properties.
“He kept the stuff in his backpack.”
The man and his bull merge—a creature half bull, half human, a Minotaur kicking clumps of dirt with his hobnailed boots, his broad teeth chewing cud, his tail swatting away the flies buzzing round his ruminated thoughts.
A dog is barking behind a gate, pressing its brown nose into the small slits of a fence, a wet mushroom of rage.
“This used to be the general store!”
The display window of the pockmarked house is boarded up, the rough boards looking like dirty fingers clamped over a mouth. My mother’s tears are like the lakes we cannot see. Their existence is assumed, otherwise the makeup of the landscape would not make sense.
The heat is making the village swim, bending it this way and that way, like the wooden toy snakes I used to fear.
“Fifty years ago this street was brimming with life! And now it’s as if none of the people ever existed!”
Dusty ivy covers the old schoolhouse—leftover garlands from an ancient party.
“Six grades all in one room!”
We stop by my great-grandmother’s grave. The polished stone with her name lies on the ground—a hard black pillow that brings a stiffness to my neck.
My mother’s hand, raw on the inside only, clutches mine. Her hands are like the lakes we cannot see—the ones that pull you from below the surface.
She bows her head, remembering her mother’s mother, the woman who canned all her sweetness into jars, pale worms wriggling in the jam because she had more than she could eat, more than she could bear to give away.
What would she think if she could see us leaning over her hard bed? Would her thoughts linger until the flies came buzzing? This sweaty old woman would slip into my bed and rub her cold little feet against mine. Time sure does fly. Even here. Especially here.
This is not what we came for.
“So where’s the house you grew up in?” I ask.
We walk through a swarm of orange butterflies with our mouths closed, knowing we will pin these creatures to our memories.
“I had the best childhood anyone could wish for!” my mother says, showing the beginning of a limp.
We pass another field and end up in front of the cemetery again.
“I guess we should have taken the second and not the first turn.”
She points at a weather-beaten house across the street and frowns at the names by the door.
“None of them live here anymore!” she shouts into the silence.
I sit on the curb. People are watching from behind their windows.
“Let’s go find your house!” I say.
My mother points out my great-great-grandparents’ cottage.
“They shared half of it with their pigs and cows,” she says, rummaging in her handbag and showing me an old photocopied picture of our ancestors standing before this very cottage.
Their faces have the bristly look of harvested fields.
The road stretches before us.
I recognize the logo of my canvas shoes in the sand. “We’ve been here before!”
“How do you know this is yours? Millions of people wear these awful plastic shoes all over the world!” She sniffs my face. “You aren’t drinking enough! You have bad breath!”
I take a gulp of tepid water. The cottage turns blue behind the plastic.
“I was thirteen when we left because of Father’s new job,” my mother says, blurring my shoe print. “You can’t imagine how mean the city girls were. Boys will use a weapon when they come across it, but girls, girls can turn anything into a weapon.”
She still thinks of me as a girl, a Pandora’s box of sharp tongues and warped mirrors.
The sun hangs above us like a tense thought on a simple face.
I can smell my own sweat now, and I keep my arms down so my mother won’t pick up on it.
“There!” She points into the distance. “We used to pick mushrooms in that forest! We lived right next to it!”
The birch tree chafes my head. I should stay put, grow roots, embrace my headache, make my bed and sleep in it.
I want to get back to the city. I was born there. It’s all I know.
When my mother gave birth, there was another woman giving birth in the next room. The other woman screeched and cursed. She felt tricked by her body.
My mother felt tricked by the city.
And I tricked my mother by being her daughter.
I wonder if I should have a child. I think of the possibilities of who and what we might become. Will she trick me and will I tell her she has yellow teeth?
Before us, six houses, their brown stone dull and pebbly, line the way to the forest.
“It was the second to last house, but this,” my mother says, pointing at the small, mud-colored structure before us, “is not how I remember it.”
I look away, into the forest. The sun cuts through the branches, highlighting leaves the way I highlight sentences in my books.
What we have been, what we now are, we shall not be tomorrow.
My mother gave me Ovid’s Metamorphoses when I was young. “Why are you disfiguring my present,” she would ask then, tapping the highlighted words in Morse: . . . — — — . . .
She wasn’t talking about the book.
I turned the page, showing her that I wasn’t like her. I turned it again and again.
My mother calls to me, sweat running down her frown, seeping into the fabric of her undershirt.
Strangers live in her house now.
I stretch my neck and look in the window. The sun is glaring, its fire is stoking my headache.
I see only myself.
“You only see yourself,” my mother likes to say.
“Get back here!” she says now. “You can’t just look into people’s houses!”
Myths tell you not to look over your shoulder.
A woman opens the door. “Can I help you?” A warning, not an offer.
“My mother grew up in this house.”
The woman takes in the dust on my shoes and I want to ask her why there’s so much sand around although there’s no sea.
“Do I know her?” she says, looking for my mother in my face because my mother is like the lakes you cannot see.
I think for a long time, searching for the right words. She’s losing her patience. There’s a dog barking in the backyard. Its hair is on her sweater. Its teeth are in her voice.
Behind her, I see the staircase my mother would walk up to her room.
My mother isn’t upstairs. She doesn’t have a room.
“She passed away,” I say in the language of myth.
“I’m sorry,” she says, meaning she doesn’t speak the language that turns lakes into circling rivers, mothers into daughters, journeys into thoughts.
“I grew up in this house,” she declares, drawing a line in the sand, bending my crown, cracking my branches with her whisper, watching my transformation with crossed arms, ignoring the leaves sprouting in her hair, the rind growing on her fingers, pretending this couldn’t be happening to her.
DOUNIA CHOUKRI holds an M A in American literature. Her poems and fiction have appeared in Colorado Review, Threepenny Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018, Cincinnati Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Green Mountains Review, Folio, and the Bitter Oleander.