Yannick says he saw Old Mother today. He came running back from the river half wild with excitement and babbling. He’d forgotten his fish on the verge in his haste, & I snapped at him for wasting time. He looked at me with that sad helplessness in his eyes, & I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t. I suppose he feels ashamed. I feel hard inside, frozen. I want to say something, but I’m not sure what it is. Bad luck to see Old Mother, everyone says, but we’ve had enough of that already. Perhaps that’s why I am what I am.
I took my time over Mother’s album. Part of it was fear. Of what I might find out, perhaps. Of what I might be forced to remember. Part of it was that the narrative was confused, the order of events deliberately and expertly shuffled, like a clever card trick. I barely remembered the day of which she had spoken, though I dreamed of it later. The handwriting, though neat, was obsessively small, giving me terrible headaches if I studied it for too long. In this too I am like her. I remember her headaches quite clearly, so often preceded by what Cassis used to refer to as her “turns.” They had worsened when I was born, he told me. He was the only one of us old enough to remember her before.
Below a recipe for mulled cider, she writes:
I can remember what it was like. To be in the light. To be whole. It was like that for a time, before C. was born. I try to remember how it was to be so young. If only we’d stayed away, I tell myself. Never come back to Les Laveuses. Y. tries to help. But there’s no love in it any more. He’s afraid of me now, afraid of what I might do. To him. To the children. There’s no sweetness in suffering, whatever people might think It eats away everything in the end Y. stays for the sake of the children. I should be grateful. He could leave, & no one would think the worse of him for it. After all, he was born here.
Never one to give in to her complaints, she bore the pain for as long as she could before retiring to her darkened room while we padded silently, like wary cats, outside. Every six months or so she would suffer a really serious attack, which would leave her prostrate for days. Once, when I was very young, she collapsed on the way back from the well, crumpling forward over her bucket, a wash of liquid staining the dry path in front of her, her straw hat slipping sideways to show her open mouth, her staring eyes. I was in the kitchen garden gathering herbs, alone. My first thought was that she was dead. Her silence, the black hole of her mouth against the taut yellow skin of her face, her eyes like ball bearings. I put down my basket very slowly and walked toward her.
The path seemed oddly warped beneath my feet, as if I was wearing someone else’s glasses, and I stumbled a little. My mother was lying on her side. One leg was splayed out, the dark skirt hiked up a little to show boot and stocking. Her mouth gaped hungrily. I felt very calm.
She’s dead, I told myself. The rush of feeling that came in the wake of the thought was so intense that for a moment I was unable to identify it. A bright comet’s tail of sensation, prickling at my armpits and flipping my stomach like a pancake. Terror, grief, confusion…I looked for them inside myself and found no trace of them. Instead, a burst of poison fireworks that filled my head with light. I looked flatly at my mother’s corpse and felt relief, hope and an ugly, primitive joy.
I feel hard inside, frozen.
I know, I know. I can’t expect you to understand how I felt. It sounds grotesque to me too, remembering how it was, wondering whether this is not another false memory… Of course, it might have been shock. People experience strange things under the effects of shock. Even children. Especially children, the prim, secret savages we were. Locked in our mad world between the Lookout Post and the river, with the Standing Stones keeping watch over our covert rituals… But it was joy I felt all the same.
I stood beside her. The dead eyes stared at me, unblinking. I wondered whether I ought to close them. There was something disturbing about their round, fishy gaze that reminded me of Old Mother, the day I finally nailed her up. A thread of drool glistened at her lips. I moved a little closer…
Her hand shot out and grabbed me by the ankle. Not dead, no; but waiting, her eyes bright with mean intelligence. Her mouth worked painfully, enunciating every word with glassy precision. I closed my eyes to stop myself from screaming.
“Listen. Get my stick.” Her voice was grating, metallic. “Get it. Kitchen. Quickly.”
I stared at her, her hand still clutching my bare ankle.
“Felt it coming this morning,” she said tonelessly. “Knew it was going to be a big one. Only saw half the clock. Smelt oranges. Get the stick. Help me.”
“I thought you were going to die.” My voice sounded eerily like hers, clear and hard. “I thought you were dead.”
One side of her mouth hitched, and she made a low yarking sound, which I eventually recognized as laughter. I ran to the kitchen with that sound in my ears, found the stick, a heavy piece of twisted hawthorn that she used to reach the higher branches of the fruit trees, and brought it to her. She was already on her knees, pushing against the ground with her hands. From time to time she shook her head with a sharp, impatient gesture, as if plagued by wasps.
“Good.” Her voice was thick, like a mouthful of mud. “Now leave me. Tell your father. I’m going…to…my room.” Then, jerking herself savagely to her feet with the stick, swaying, keeping upright with a simple effort of will:
“I said, go away!”
And she struck at me clumsily with one clawing hand, almost losing balance, stubbing at the path with her stick. I ran then, turning back only when I was well out of her range, ducking down behind a stand of red currants to watch her staggering toward the house, dragging her feet in great loops in the dirt behind her.
It was the first time I became truly aware of my mother’s affliction. My father explained it to us later, the business with the clock and the oranges, while she lay in darkness. We understood little of what he told us. Our mother had bad spells, he said patiently, headaches that were so terrible that sometimes she didn’t even know what she was doing. Had we ever had sunstroke? Felt that woozy, unreal feeling, imagined that objects were closer than they were, sounds louder? We looked at him, uncomprehending. Only Cassis, nine then to my four, seemed to understand.
“She does things,” said my father. “Things she doesn’t really remember afterward. Because of the bad spells.”
We stared at him solemnly. Bad spells.
My youthful mind associated the phrase with stories of witches. The gingerbread house. The Seven Swans. I imagined my mother lying on her bed in the dark, eyes open, strange words sliding between her lips like eels. I imagined her looking through the walls and seeing me, seeing right inside me and rocking with that dreadful, yarking laughter… Sometimes Father slept on the kitchen chair when Mother had her bad spells. And one morning we had got up to find him bathing his forehead in the kitchen sink, and the water full of blood… An accident, he told us then. A stupid accident. But I remember seeing blood, glossy on the clean terra-cotta tiles. A length of stove wood had been left on the table. There was blood on that too.
“She wouldn’t hurt us, would she, Papa?”
He looked at me for a moment. A second’s hesitation, maybe two. And in his eyes a look of calculation, as if deciding how much to tell.
Then he smiled. “Of course not, sweetheart.” What a question, his smile said. “She wouldn’t ever hurt you.” And he folded me into his arms and I smelled tobacco and moths and the biscuity smell of old sweat. But I never forgot that hesitation, that measuring look. For a second he had considered it. Turned it over in his mind, wondering how much to tell us. Perhaps he’d thought that he had time, plenty of time to explain to us when we were older.
Later that night I heard sounds from my parents’ room; shouting, breaking glass. I got up early to find that my father had slept all night in the kitchen. My mother got up late but cheery-as cheery as she ever was-singing to herself in a low tuneless voice as she stirred green tomatoes into her round copper jamming pan, slipping me a handful of yellow gages from her apron pocket. Shyly, I asked her if she felt any better. She looked at me without comprehension, her face white and blank as a clean plate. I sneaked into her room later and found my father taping waxed paper over a broken windowpane. There was glass on the floor from the window and the face of the mantel clock, now lying face-down on the boards. A reddish smear had dried against the wallpaper just above the bedstead, and my eyes sought it with a kind of fascination. I could see the five commas of her fingertips where they had stabbed at the paper, and the blot that was her palm. When I looked again a few hours later, the wall had been scrubbed clean and the room was tidy again. Neither of my parents mentioned the incident, both behaving as if nothing untoward had happened. But after that, my father kept our bedroom door locked and our windows bolted at night, almost as if he were afraid of something breaking in.