as we sat down
and began to talk,
I saw myself:
an antique teapot
in sunbleached grounds
of a dusty house.
you spoke words
themselves to me,
and a ripple of gasps
fell hard across
that crowded grass.
as we sat down
and began to talk,
I saw myself:
an antique teapot
in sunbleached grounds
of a dusty house.
you spoke words
themselves to me,
and a ripple of gasps
fell hard across
that crowded grass.
tendons in the forearm
you march into the kitchen
to boil an egg for your lunch
from sink to stove
a squirrel visited my office today
he made me look up from my painting
he rustled the ivy
I took a picture, look
like the fortitude of flowers
the way you fascinate a room
wiry bird bone frame
fortified with soil from the garden
and laughter of children from a carpet
now I find myself reflecting
your hurried speech
your skinny quick hands
the way love makes you cry
It was the first morning without cockerels. The sun fell into the kitchen and hit the geraniums above the sink. Their petals were almost dead, but Tasha had kept them. They brightened up the yellow walls. According to her mother, who had been in charge of buying the paint, the colour was meant to create warmth. Instead, it reminded Tasha of her Aunt Amina’s jaundice. She watched the dust drift into the pantry. It fell over the beetroot and settled on the skin of four, roughly plucked roosters. Their thin bodies might make a stew. She would tell Seb that a dog had eaten them. Tasha covered them with a newspaper and skimmed over the headlines. Nothing jumped out at her. Her mother refused to read them, refused even the radio. She smoked her pipe, trimmed the window boxes and spoke to her husband. He never had much to say on the matter.
A beetle clicked by the sink and Tasha watched it clamber into a bowl of grapes. It sat heavily within the bunch. She looked at her watch; Seb would be up soon. Her feet inched into a pair of worn leather sandals and she made her way into the garden. The hen house stood at the end of their property, and she noticed how the paint was peeling. She had only decorated it three months ago. The chickens were already outside and didn’t move when she entered the pen. Tasha felt as if she were interrupting a wake; after the incident with the cockerels, she didn’t blame them. They were young women, wondering where their men had gone. “You and me both,” she muttered as she closed the latch. Tasha recalled the date on the newspaper. It read April 7th 1996, but was a few days old. It was now the 10th. She noticed how the eggs were smaller. Her mother told her that during the war they had stopped laying altogether. She slipped them in her pocket and a warm nose brushed the backs of her legs. The culprit was Sergio, an elderly Tornjak who belonged to Mr Hadzic across the road. She had laughed when he told her that Sergio used to be a guard dog.
“Guard dogs are meant to be fierce” she had attested, stroking Sergio’s head.
“He was quite something in his youth.” Mr Hadzic smiled, as he walked back to his porch. “But then, we all were.”
As she brushed the white fur off her leg, she tried to imagine what Mr Hadzic had looked like as a younger man. Her mother told her that he was in his thirties, but he carried decades on his back. Brown hairs had become threaded with grey. He would have been a desirable man. She had learnt not to stare, but her son lacked that discretion.
“Where’s your eye?” Seb had asked him, when he came over to introduce himself. It was the day that they moved in with her mother.
Tasha turned away from the chickens, and remembered the answer her seven-year-old had received.
“The soldiers cut it out.”
Seb had nightmares for a week. She had slipped off her sandals at the kitchen door when she heard Mr Hadzic calling for Sergio. Tasha crossed the track barefoot and saw him in his garden. A bowl of gravy sat on the grass in front of him. In the light, she could see the gouges that stretched up his cheek. They were the colour of a fresh burn.
“He was watching the chickens again,” Tasha said when she reached him, keeping her feet away from the gravy. Sergio had a large splash zone.
Unsurprised, he nodded and patted the dog’s head. His face was pinched in the sun. “What was all that noise last night?” he asked. “It sounded like a goose being mugged.” He didn’t laugh, but raised his eye to hers. It was dark blue.
She moved closer, and avoided the gravy on the lawn. “Mum got pissed off with the cockerels. Apparently they were disturbing my father.” Tasha looked back at the house. Her mother’s curtains were still closed.
Mr Hadzic raised an eyebrow. “But your father—”
“I know,” Tasha interrupted. “But you’ve seen what she’s like.”
It was gone nine by the time she had cooked breakfast, and she scolded Seb for licking the plate. “Even Sergio has better manners than you,” she chastised, and ruffled his black hair. It was the same colour as hers, but that was all he had inherited. His round eyes were almond, and there was a gentle hook to his nose. He was the mirror image of his father.
“Some days, it is hard to look at him,” she had once told Mr Hadzic.
Tasha placed her mother’s breakfast in the fridge and looked at the kitchen. The wooden floor had been worn smooth by generations of children. She had moved in several months ago, after the siege ended. The air in the mountains was cleaner than in the city. Dull thuds came from the ceiling, and she knew her mother was straightening the bedsheets. Her father’s side was always pristine. Tasha had grabbed the car keys and put on a jacket by the time her mother came into the kitchen. Her hair had been scraped into a bun to hide the stained, yellow ends.
“Where are you off to?” her mother asked. Her white shirt was crisp, but her voice was darkened by tobacco. She sat at the table and put a hand on Tasha’s father. “And where’s breakfast?”
Tasha removed the plate from the fridge and carried it over. “We’re out of bread,” she replied, as she wiped a fork clean and handed it to her mother. The closest shop was three miles away, but the drive was pleasant. On a clear day, you could even make out the city. The sun had migrated further into the sky and cast shadows. She noticed the road sign. It was yellow and slightly bent, with thick, black letters. She knew what was on it without looking.
SARAJEVO – 60 Miles.
At the store, she paid for the loaf and bought an orange to eat in the car. She didn’t have enough change to buy her mother’s tobacco, but she bought a carnation for her father. Its pink head reminded Tasha of a clenched fist. Driving back, she didn’t stop to look at the view. There isn’t much left to look at anyway, she thought, remembering the bombardment. Her wedding ring caught the sun and threw cubes of light across the dashboard. It was on a chain around her neck. She reached for it and thumbed the plain, gold band. Tasha opened the window and could smell the fir trees which lined the track as she neared her house. She had always loved the mountains, but moved with Jakob to the city when they got married. One day she had asked him to get bread. He was swallowed by a bomb.
She pulled into her drive and saw Mr Hadzic cutting his hedge. Sergio was lying at his feet, covered in leaves. The kitchen door was unlocked and she walked inside, placing the bag on the worktop. Her mother was still at the table; a brown pipe twitched between her teeth. Half of her breakfast was untouched. With a grunt, she lifted herself from the chair.
“You and Mr Hadzic have spent a lot of time together recently,” her mother said, fixing her eyes upon her daughter. “You talked until gone eight the other night.” She paused. “Is there something going on between you two?”
Tasha’s hand tightened on the mug she had cleared off the table. “Jakob only died eight months ago.” She tried to control her voice. “How could you think I’m moving on?”
“I just thought—” her mother started, but her sentence was drowned out by the radio firing up, words spitting from its grill.
“Turn that off!” she shouted, and snatched at the radio in her daughter’s hands. Headlines flew distortedly through the house. Seb poked his head around the kitchen door.
“Hundreds of buildings have been destroyed in the capital…Refugee centres cannot cope with the demand for aid…The estimated death toll has risen to twenty thousand…”
The sound of broken china made Tasha turn off the news. Her mother went rigid and stared at the floor. A large pile of ash was clumped near the table. A small, black urn lay cracked upon its side. In the commotion, Seb had knocked over his grandfather’s ashes. He was too shocked to move. The silence felt heavier after the radio. It was a minute before anyone spoke.
“Everyone out,” her mother said quietly, her hand on her chest. “Now.”
Tasha walked out into the garden and sat on the old swing. She held her head in her hands. Her father had pushed her on it when she was a child. Before the war came. It had harvested everything, and she was left scratching for seeds.
A week before I signed a 12-month lease with my fiancée on our soon-to-be-new old home with its small yard and its big deposit, my mother began to fall apart. She had called me and asked me how I was doing (How’s the dog? How’s Nicole?) but before I could answer, she asked me if I could come over and help her move some of her things out of storage. She asked me as if she were asking a waiter for another glass of water; without the slightest worry that I would say no.
At that moment my apartment was boxes upon boxes. It was a small one-bedroom that I had occupied for three years. I never knew how much stuff I owned until I dragged everything out of its drawers and closet space. There were old DVDs (when was the last time I even watched a DVD?) filed randomly in small purple shoe-like boxes I had bought from Ikea. There were books and shoes (a pair so old that they sported a brownish stain on the toes where I puked whiskey after my first night getting drunk as a teenager). Nicole, my fiancée, helped by taking a white trash bag and throwing away things she knew I didn’t want and I made it worse by going through those bags and taking some things out. I had a wooden box, about the size of two gallons of water, full of notebooks. The red notebooks were for screenplay ideas, green notebooks were for novel ideas, blue notebooks were for poems and the yellow notebooks were stories I had been told about my mother (either by her, or by my father). I hadn’t written in any of the notebooks (nor even bothered to read from any of them) since I first moved out on my own.
My car was just as messy as everything else in my life. I had boxes of Girl Scout cookies in the front passenger seat and the back seat was stuffed with white trash bags full of clothes I was going to donate to the thrift store. When I got to my mother’s, I realized something was wrong. On her left hand she only had her thumb and three fingers. Her index finger was missing. She said it had fallen off like a coat-button and she showed me where it had fallen; it was still on the kitchen floor. I looked at it and went to pick it up, but then it dissolved into something like sand. I grabbed a sandwich bag from the pantry and scooped the sand up with a loose letter from her pile of mail. Then I rolled my weight on the bag to get the air out.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said “I’ve never been healthier. I am eating a macrobiotic diet, have you heard of that? You only eat what’s naturally in season. I highly recommend it.”
She sat down at the kitchen table and crossed her legs and put her hands in her lap. She examined her left hand as if there was some huge wound or gash and blood was pouring out, but there was no blood at all. There wasn’t as much as a blemish.
“You need to call Benjamin at the Eastern Order. His number is on the fridge. You would love to talk to him, but he needs to know about this. Something isn’t right.”
“Who is he?” I asked, and put the Ziploc bag of her sand on the counter, next to a roll of paper towels.
“He is this great spiritual leader I met last year on a retreat into Flagstaff. He has been helping me with some issues and I think this is related. He wanted me to get rid of all my old spiritual teachings, especially anything I worked on with my therapist when I was still with your father,” she said and went to stand up, “that’s why I called you over. I need help getting boxes out of the shed.”
Before my parents divorced, back when I was still just their kid, there was always Christmas lights up on the house by the first of December. The trash was taken to the curb every Monday and Wednesday and the mail box was never overstuffed with magazines, unpaid bills and Value Coupon Books. We never ran out of toilet paper and there were always frozen meats in the freezer to be thawed out and grilled.
That’s when we went to the three-tiered church down the street and my father fell asleep during the sermons and my mother started to speak in tongues and flop up and down the stage like a fish out of water. When the pastor Richard Luth had said, in church-sponsored marriage counseling, that my father had not yet made peace with having to grow up in an orphanage (at least, that’s how my mother told it), my father started to stay home on Sundays. We’d go to church, my mother and I, and he’d be back home mowing down the grass and trimming the edges and when we’d come back he’d be sunburnt and smiling with little cuts where rocks had flown back and hit him across his legs and he’d smell of sweat.
Then she called him names and he’d only come home after drinks and he taught me songs that other kids my age had never heard. It was then that she changed the locks. The mail started to gather up, the yard became overgrown and wild, dinner was takeout or delivered, we skipped Christmas two years in a row and when I got sick my mother put oil bought from the church gift shop on my forehead. When that didn’t work and I became pale and dark-eyed, my mother dragged me up to the stage and I held my hands out while the pastor pounded the Holy Spirit into me and told me if I believed I’d be saved.
I walked out to the shed with my mother. There was just enough light left in the day to see.
“You see,” she said “everything has an energy. Everything is alive. If you beat a kid with a bat, that bat gets stained with a bit of that crime. It sticks around. Over time, as you hold that bat again and again, you’ll feel the urge to hit a kid again.”
I turned the light on in the shed and looked upon all the storage boxes, most of them translucent but shaded brown with dust.
“We go through life hanging to all these old things, these things we keep close out of habit, and these items can either be helping us up or bringing us down.”
“What do you want me to do? Take out all these boxes?” I asked, trying to count, without it being obvious, how many boxes there were. I figured close to fifteen.
“I want to bring out most of them. And I want to throw them in the fire.”
She went to start a fire in the backyard fire pit and I went inside to hide in the bathroom and called the local Urgent Care and spoke to a medical intern and told her everything that was happening. She took down my notes, said “hmm” and “interesting” and then asked me to hold. When she came back, she said the on-call doctor advises fresh liquids and plenty of rest. Have her only eat meals like soup or stew, nothing too difficult to chew. She can take ibuprofen if she starts to ache. If she hasn’t improved by Monday, call her regular attending physician and schedule an appointment.
“What about her finger?” I ask.
“Yes. The finger that fell off. It’s sand. Can we fix that?”
The woman on the line was quiet for a few moments, and I imagined she was either searching her head for something to say or looking at her nails. Then she said, “No, I don’t think so. I think the way she is now is the way she will be from now on.”
I flushed the toilet, turned on the faucet for a few seconds and then went back outside. She had started a fire and it was now officially late evening; the stars were showing and the neighbors all had lights in their windows.
My father was an orphan and never liked talking about it.
My mother grew up in an abusive home and was always telling me about it as I grew up. My father said she told me too much. She had run away when she was 15 and a half. She had worked at a hot dog stand where they specialized in double chili dogs (two hot dogs stacked on one another in one bun) and when she saved enough money, or saved what she thought would be enough money, she left home and slept outside in parks, in the back of trucks, at cheap hotels and with various people she met on the road until she found a steady job selling cleaning products door to door.
When I was growing up, after we stopped going to church and when I only saw my father on the weekend, my mother told me her parents worked for the Devil and they abused her and her brothers. She told me one memory she had of being woken up and carried down to the basement where men and women stood cloaked and hooded, with nothing but candlelight and an ominous “ohm” reverberating between their bodies. She said they would hold her down and use her in rituals, her and her brothers. She said they did rituals of pure evil, rituals that promised her and her offspring to the Devil for the next ten generations.
When I went up to my mother, I saw that her entire hand had fallen off and beneath her was another pile of sand. “Let’s go,” I said, motioning for us to go back inside.
“No,” she said, ” I want to stay by this fire.”
“Mother,” I said looking towards the pile of the sand, “you aren’t doing well.”
“I know how I am doing. I didn’t call you over here to baby me, I called you because I need your help with those boxes.”
I sighed and then brought her a chair. Then I got a mason jar and picked up as much of the sand as I could.
When she thought I had felt Christ enough as a child, she told me to stop trying. “No point in making a phone call,” she said “if you know the person on the other line isn’t going to pick up.” That’s when she began talking about the Universe, and told me not to answer the phone if it were Pastor Luth calling.
She told me about people’s energy, of currents of love and hate, and how we feed them with our emotions. “There is no sick,” she said “but only those who are feeding the wrong energy.”
That winter when I got pneumonia a modern-day shaman put his hand on my chest and pushed and mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
The following summer I stayed with my father and my mother travelled up North and lived in a small community of like-minded people in small cabins that I only ever saw through photos, but once she told me how she heard the one true voice of Mother Earth at night when she was wrapped up in something like linen and placed on the soil while everyone made a circle around her and beat on drums. That was long ago, I couldn’t tell you how long, but it was before my first kiss with Nicole Leisman, my now-fiancée, and right around the time when my mother wouldn’t let me see my father anymore.
I took out three boxes and placed them at her feet. She would open them with her only hand, sift through them and either tell me to put them back or to throw them into the fire. The first two, full of books and vials, were into the fire. The third, which was full of nothing but pine cones wrapped in newspaper, she told me to keep.
She had let me use a headlamp my father had bought her, back when they were married and went camping together. She said I was conceived on one of those trips, outside of the tent and under the stars.
I was in the shed, getting ready to bring out another box when Nicole called.
“Hey,” I said picking up.
“Hey, are you still with your Mom?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m sorry it’s taking so long.” I said and looked back at my mother, who was sitting close to the fire, which was now quite large, with her back towards the night. “She wants me to clean out her shed, I guess there is an exterminator coming in the morning.”
“The exterminator needs you to clean out the shed?”
“I guess so. I don’t know how much longer it will take. A few more hours.”
“Do you want me to come over?”
“Maybe later. She isn’t feeling well.”
“Have you told her I am pregnant yet?”
“It hasn’t come up. No.”
“I don’t think it will be as bad as you think. She seems less intense than she was when you were growing up. You know, like when she told me I was the cause of your asthma.”
I laughed, and then said “I am going to go. But I will call you later.”
I brought out another six boxes (four to burn, two to keep) and then said, “Mother, have you had dinner yet? You should make something.”
“There’s no food in there,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I threw it all out yesterday. It was tainted. I am getting new food next week through the Eastern Order.”
I looked in her cupboards and in the fridge, all of them empty except for stored pouches of her blood.
When I was older, I started working at S&F Grocery as a bagger and then was promoted to a grocery clerk, where I was responsible for stocking the canned food shelves and keeping the milk cooler full. I still lived with my Mother, but saw her intermittently. I spoke to my father on the phone and would, when I saved up enough money and bought my first car, drive up to see him. He lived up North, further than I’ve ever been before. He would ask after my mother, and I’d tell him of the new things she was doing: eating only raw meat, doing fire ceremonies in the living room (setting off the smoke alarm once), and storing her own blood in the freezer.
“Storing her own blood? Why on earth?”
“She says who we are is in our blood. If you get a blood transfusion, you are getting someone’s else essence.”
He laughed and then smiled. “I am not going to lie. I miss some of her. She was never boring.”
“I wish she was normal,” I said, “I can’t bring people over.”
He shook his head, “I am not sure you can be normal, when you start out like she did. I can imagine a lot of things but I can’t imagine her life before I knew her.”
“I know, Dad.”
“No, you don’t. Neither do I. Don’t you see? I met her brother once, before you were born. She found him through the internet in Oregon and we went to see him. He killed himself shortly after.”
“I never knew this,” I said.
“She tells you almost everything, but not everything.”
“What happened when you met him?”
“Not much. He was a nice guy, honestly. A real nice guy. I never would have thought he was as troubled as he was. He smoked a lot—I mean a lot—and he was super skinny, but that could mean anything. At this point in our marriage, things were getting rough and I asked her brother how he dealt with the past. I didn’t want to get into details. I just wanted to see how I could help.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he had it pretty bad, but she had it worse. For some reason, she had it worse growing up. The things they would do. You see, a lot of people, me and your mom included, think maybe she just imagined a lot of these things, you know? A lot of the really crazy things, like the rituals and the sacrifices. Maybe she just had really abusive parents and she created these things to make sense of it. That’s what one of the doctors said. The doctor said it was common and that there were all these famous court cases about it. But talking to her brother—he didn’t confirm any details and I didn’t want him to—well, it made me feel alone and like I couldn’t do anything, no matter how hard I tried.”
He stopped and then said, “I shouldn’t be telling you this.”
All of the food stores were closed, so I went into my car and brought in a few boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
“It’s better than nothing,” I said and gave her a box.
She laughed and as she laughed, her bangs dissolved and trickled down her face.
We went inside and I took some tape and black Sharpie marker and wrote “left index finger” over the Ziploc bag and then “rest of left hand” on the mason jar.
“Thank you for helping me,” she said as she sat down on the couch. “Want to watch some TV?”
“I need to get going, Mother.”
“Before you go, I want you to take down Simon’s number.”
“The man helping me. He is really amazing. He reads you.”
I sat down across from her and asked, “What’s that mean?”
Her eyes lit up, “Well, I sat across from him in his office. In this basic wooden chair and he asks you. ‘Do I have permission to access your past life?’ and you say yes and he looks back into your life and says ‘There is a box inside your soul that is locked. Can I unlock it?’ I said yes, and he said he saw my past life as a woman in Salem during the witch trials. Isn’t that something? I was convicted for sexually molesting little kids in the name of the Devil but I was innocent. He said he saw clearly that I was innocent.” She opened the Girl Scout cookie box and took a bit of a cookie and then said “ow” and put her fingers in her mouth.
“What else did he see?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, her fingers still in her mouth “I guess they tied me up and were burning me at the stake and they said if I confessed they would save me…” but before she could continue, she took her tooth out of her mouth and it instantly turned to sand. Then all of her teeth fell out and she coughed up the sand, like dry cereal. I rushed over and helped her.
“It was important to me,” she said, mumbling. Then she looked at me and said, “It’s important to me, that I was innocent. That I was innocent.”
“Mother,” I said, taking my phone out, “I am going to call Dad. He needs to know about this. He can help. I’ll be right back, okay? I’ll be right back.” Then I stood up, turned towards the kitchen and called him. It rang and rang but he didn’t answer. When it went to his voicemail, I hung up and called again. I held the phone in my hand, letting it ring and ring, as I walked back to the couch but she wasn’t talking anymore.
Her eyes were the next to go. They went like tears of sand dripping out of her sockets, down her high cheekbones and dribbling over the sides of her face. After that, she lost her tongue and could only moan. Then her throat went and her head was detached from her body. It was her chest that was the last to go. It went slowly, like sand castles being weathered away by the wind.
Afterwards, I gathered up all the sand. It took a dozen or so cups and two pans, which I sorted on the kitchen counter. I sat on a stool and poured out a little bit of sand. I made her into a pile, then pressed and molded her into a mound. Then I leveled it and made her into a line and cut into her diagonally. I used a credit card from my wallet to push her off the side and into my hand.
I took a tablespoon of sand and dropped her into a coffee mug and filled the mug up with water. I swirled the sand and water around until it became thick. Then I drank it, or tried to, but couldn’t help but gag and I spat her up into the sink and coughed and choked as I turned on the faucet and washed that part of her down the drain.
I packaged all the sand up and carried it outside. It was long into night now and I scattered her in her little patch of a garden. Then I went inside the garage, took out her blood and poured it over the sand. As I was pouring, I tripped and fell into the wet pile. I got blood all over my face and I wiped it on my sleeve. I had never been so out of breath, it was like I had run two miles in the time it takes to run one. My mother had, at one time, wanted to have been buried at the top of Machu Picchu, scattered into an ocean (preferably the Pacific), buried at the base of some great mountain, or in the Catholic cemetery her older brother had been buried in. I wiped my face again and finished pouring the rest of the blood over the garden.
When I got back to her house, I went inside, as if I had lived there all my life, and locked the door behind me. The Girl Scout cookies were still stacked on the dining room table and the neighborhood cat sat outside the back porch door, meowing. It would be a week later when, with my Dad, I began to package up all of her items and sort her things into two piles, that which we would keep and that which we would throw away, that I found a small vial, just slightly bigger than my palm, full of what looked like sand.
so much left unsaid about
the woman who washed our hair
in the river and the tv that peeled itself lemon
static and our limbs buzzed and we were
animals not afraid of being animals
and we tore acidity from the apartment windows
and our walls cried blue and watercolor and the only thing
left was the shrine we made to the crack in our mother’s
head from which we were born, pulled like sea foam and fake california
sun– the color of your hair, a discarded hand from the yellowy clouds
aren’t you tired of living this way, aren’t you too old to
be sucking thumbs and playing the wind like a six string guitar.
your tongue walks penny circles around me
and the phone loses its purple mind and i am
ashamed of the flickering light on your face and how
people have always thought you were younger than you are.
sister, pray to the god of our broken carburetor and the black hair
we found in the sink you spit skin and yellow blood into
pray to the god of my broken lip and the boy who shattered your knee
before state and the highway we ran away to: kneel to its fluorescent lights
and the dark, empty night that pooled at us and
the navy color of your mouth when you told me you
were so lost, a bulimic deer in headlights,
that you were getting closer to angels and further from yourself.
Lilly, like the flower, like a thousand, golden unpicked hands,
I looked up to you like a moth sees heaven and your hair was
the shade mine almost was and my greatest
shame is that mother liked me best.
Lilly, sister, hand. hand that gave mine its softness,
I know I am not as strong as you, I know you grew up
in a closed mouth sun, that you were too much for too much
but I don’t know if you miss me, or if even that would be enough.
the last time I saw you, purple lipstick made me cry. you looked too cold to be
the pavement I had grown up burning my feet on, you looked too cold for the interstate,
for the intersection. you were my god. and worse, you
were my sister. now I pray to the half of the grapefruit I promise
myself I’ll eat tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow like tomorrow
is the knife you put in my hands. if I saw you only once,
it was the back of your car: a cloud of hot,
cicada yellow exhaust when i learned that
there is only God and everyone else.