At first, you don’t see the Mother. Perhaps you are aware of her, standing beside you at the rainy bus stop—the same way you are aware of your own breathing: distantly, incuriously—but you don’t really see her. Not until she gasps and clasps her hands around your face. That’s when you see her: large, earthy eyes, blue headscarf, a hematite rosary nestled in her sun-wrinkled cleavage.
“Miriam,” she says. “Goodness, look at you.”
You don’t object. Don’t pull away, or tell her that your name isn’t Miriam, that you’ve never seen her before in your life. Instead, you linger in her grasp. Maybe it’s the softness of her palms, scented with almond milk lotion. Or maybe it’s the prescription drugs in your system: benzodiazepines, taken before first period to slow your breathing, soften the hard edges of reality.
The Mother brushes a thumb across your cheek, says: “My God, Miriam, it’s really you.”
You blink, one eyelid slower than the other. “I don’t think it is, ma’am.”
The Mother seems not to hear.
When the bus arrives—a yellow square, fuzzy with rain—the Mother takes your hand in hers and leads you to the back seat. She doesn’t let go, even when your stop is announced over the scratchy speaker system and you stand to exit. She just keeps your hand in hers, gently but firmly, until you sit back down. You watch through water-veined windows as your stop passes in a flurry of graffiti and wet cement. Your high school passes, then the pub your mama frequents, the park you’ve slept in once or twice, the bridge that takes you over the brown river and out of town.
At one point, in a flash of dizzy clarity, you turn to the Mother and ask: “Am I being kidnapped?”
The Mother seems not to hear.
Outside, concrete buildings give way to colorful cabins surrounded by a fence that’s more wisteria than wood. An oasis-like allotment garden blooms from the cracked asphalt, complete with waterlogged apple trees. The cabins’ little chimney tops steam into the pastel clouds.
The two of you exit the bus, hand in hand, and walk through the drizzle.
The Mother’s house lies in the navel of the allotment garden: a weatherboard cabin hugged by patches of rhubarb and curly kale. Its walls flake olive green; its tin-and-plastic roof catches wet sunlight. Its little square yard is bordered by other square yards. Red chickens swagger through holes in the ivy-dressed chain-link fences between the yards, clucking from lawn to lawn, feathers beady with rain.
The Mother guides you to the cabin. Inside, the air is hot and humid. The ceiling is low and twinkly with fairy lights. Rain thrums sweetly against the translucent patches of plastic roof. The Mother gets the wood burner going while you tremble rain onto the dark pine floor. There’s a cup of tea in your hand at some point—hot and tasting funny—and a womb-red armchair that shuts its soft mouth around your body. Then her hand is back in yours—tea spills on the floor—and you are led down a narrow hallway. The walls spin and contract around you, a door slams shut, and you find yourself alone in a small, slant-ceilinged bedroom.
Quiet, except for the rasp of your own breathing.
The bed is unmade, sheets crumpled and smelling faintly of sweat and fruit left too long in the sun. Above the bed, the slanted ceiling is plastered in wispy watercolor drawings: blue bleeding into red, violet layered to a shade of midnight. You catch the arch of a human eye in the watery turmoil. You look around, blurry-eyed: crinkled blouses litter the floor, books lie open in the windowsill. A pillar of daylight slices through the closed curtains and catches in the dusty air like a helicopter search beam.
For the first time, you sense our presence: a tension in the air, a whisper bordering your hearing range.
You stagger backward, breathing fast. Your hoodie is soaked and too tight around your chest. Nausea climbs your throat. You want out, but the walls carousel around you, and you can’t find the door. You spin, reel—trip.
You wake up in a streak of red sunlight. Your head throbs against the pillow; your mouth tastes like something has died in it. You’re naked.
From the ceiling, slashing brushstrokes—like long, watery mouths—grin down at you.
The Mother sets the sofa table with fried eggs and raspberries while you hug a plush blanket to your bare frame. The benzos are wearing off, your senses sharpening to your surroundings: a bookshelf of bibles and botanical atlases, stained glass lamps, the mellow scent of evening. The door to the yard is open. Outside, children’s voices laugh and squeal. Bumblebees buzz in the honeysuckles, wings flecked pink with sunset.
You wonder how the fuck you got here.
The Mother sits beside you and slices your eggs into even, child-friendly pieces.
You turn a sour-sweet raspberry over in your mouth and consider how best to make your exit. You decide you aren’t afraid of the Mother; she’s too small and dainty for that. Slender neck, veiny hands, eyes as soft and dark as topsoil. Her hazel hair flows down her shoulders like a river down rocks.
The Mother catches you looking and smiles. “If you finish your plate, we can paint watercolors afterward.”
You snort incredulously. The mush of a raspberry shoots up your nose, and you cough. “Do I look like I know how to paint watercolors?” you wheeze.
The Mother seems not to hear.
She feeds you creamy leek pie and caramelized almonds that crunch between your teeth, spinach crepes as airy as clouds, and mashed potatoes with crisps of oregano. She heats a duvet on the wood burner and wraps it around your cold feet, just like she did for us. When you ask for your clothes, she tells you they’re in the washer. Then she turns on the TV and lets you watch wildlife documentaries about orange horses that gallop through dandelion fields; newly-hatched butterflies that ride the breeze in pulsating hordes; a huge, milky-white swan spreading its wings so wide it blocks the sunrise, its contour lighting up.
You decide that someday this will all be very funny: The story about how once, at sixteen, you had a bad trip and went home with a crazy lady who thought you were her dead daughter or something, and the lady ended up pampering you for a whole day because you were too polite to leave.
Finally, you ask to use the Mother’s kitchen landline. Pressing the blanket to your chest, you call your mama four times, then leave a hushed voicemail telling her not to worry, that you’ll be home soon.
To the Mother, you say you have to go to the library to work on a school project. You say this with the conviction of a prophet, even though the windows are black and the time is half past midnight.
The Mother says that’s fine and that she’ll leave the door unlocked so you can come home late. You say you might stay all night at the library, and the Mother says that’s fine, too. She packs you a breakfast of raspberries and hard-boiled eggs. Your hoodie is still damp, so the Mother plucks a pinstripe blouse from the floor of the small bedroom and irons it for you to wear. She buttons the blouse for you, all the way to your neck. You expect the fabric to smell like stranger-sweat, but it just smells like hot cloth.
The Mother gives your hand a tender squeeze and says: “Stay safe, dear.” Then she opens the door and lets you into the moon-dappled yard.
You spend a few weeks at home in your mama’s dingy apartment. Your mama is there for a couple of days—flirting with the landlord and shouting on the phone—but then she goes on a trip with her new boyfriend, leaving you a few hundreds for food and some vague instructions about what to do if she isn’t back in a month.
You have a grand time in your mama’s absence, binging gummy bears and wearing her stiletto boots to school. You smoke freely, have boys over, throw a garbage bag from your bedroom window directly into the dumpster three stories below. At night, you sleep in the Mother’s pinstripe blouse. Although the fabric is long cold, it still holds the memory of iron-heat—smooth and tender on your skin—lulling you to an easy sleep.
Then comes the landlord. A tall, stooping man with a brown-spotted scalp and hands that hang from his wrists like T-rex claws. Apparently, your mama hasn’t made rent. You make the mistake of telling him your mama isn’t home and won’t be for weeks, hoping he’ll feel sorry for you. Instead, this information seems to excite him. He comes back every day, several times a day, and tries to invite himself inside. His eyes lizarding all over your breasts, legs, crotch. His tongue flicking at his teeth. Each time, you tell him you’re in the middle of something really important and have to go now, so sorry. After he leaves, you take a benzo to regain control of your breathing and lie numb on the kitchen floor until the counters stop spinning.
One night, when you try to shut the door, the landlord wedges in a foot to block it. You look at his foot, and he looks at you, brimming with impatience. You smile and say: “How about I come down to your office in ten minutes, and we can figure something out?” After he leaves, you grab a handful of benzos and jump on the bus to the Mother’s house.
The Mother answers her door at 1 A.M. and cries with joy. Fat, moonlit tears roll down her cheeks and dot her silky nightgown. She kisses the crown of your head so many times you think you might get a concussion and then heats a chicken liver pâté for you. She says you look cold and are you thirsty and you must be exhausted.
While you were away, she recorded every wildlife documentary on TV. The two of you stay up until dawn and watch red stags that saunter through greenish rain with ferns and jackdaws in their antlers; tiger cubs that swim across clear rivers in perfect arrowhead formations; a hummingbird, its iridescent chest motionless in the air as it tongues the nectar from a hibiscus flower.
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TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 1
HELENA OLUFSEN is a Copenhagen-based writer and ophthalmology resident. Apart from Southern Humanities Review, her writing has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Harpur Palate, Neon, and is forthcoming in The Fiddlehead.