by Casey Forest
Our mothers do not touch the woods. They don’t go near them. Especially now, mid-August, when the green edges hide the mud sweat within, when fungal blooms sweep through the fingerlike tree roots to eat the overdamp leaves and whatever squirrels happened to die this season. Our mothers are life-givers. They understand that the late summer forest is not a place for life but a place for afterlife – for the coroners, swarms of bugs and mildew, things that don’t understand a gift like a mother can give.
My own mother knows this, I know she does. She’s drilled it into me many times, to stay away, not to touch or breathe anything from the woods that surround the town.
She’s become forgetful through time.
When I lived with her, she wasn’t this bad. But the routine of everything has blunted her senses. She says things that don’t make sense. But because she gave new life to the community, no one says anything when she rambles on about nonsense. The town is indebted to her. If she wants to drift in and out of presence, that’s the least we can give her.
• • •
The visit is supposed to be short. Three days to visit, to announce the news. All my bags are unpacked in my old room.
I find her at our kitchen table, porcelain pot of dead basil in front of her.
Poor thing, she says. Died last night.
She’s a little shrunken herself, bent over her shoulders, cataract in one eye. Her hair is frizzy and grizzled.
I touch her back to console her. Under my hand, her sweater is pilled and stiff. She reaches out and touches my hand briefly, and then touches the shriveled shell of herb in front of us. It shudders under her fingers. As we watch, its tense gray muscles start to relax, rehydrate, stretch down and then file upright until the plant isn’t dead anymore. Its leaves are perky, stem strong and straight. It is still a little gray. A mother can’t do everything.
I let go of her back.
We have blackish pesto for dinner. I do not comment on it.
It doesn’t matter that she will never water it again, only continue to set it out every few days to touch with her mother’s fingers until its color resembles wet cement. Life is life, and the pesto tastes fine.
I do the dishes and tuck her into bed. She seems happy to have someone look after her. It almost makes me guilty for leaving as soon as I turned eighteen. But not quite.
• • •
My mother wakes me up on Sunday. It’s time for church.
We get ready in front of the same mirror, like we used to before I moved out. She puts on pearls like she’s done for the past thirty years. It’s always been the first thing. Next she puts her unruly hair up into a bun, which pulls the skin of her forehead tight and thin away from her eyes. In places, her blue veins peek through. She only has a few strands of eyebrow left after all these years, which she used to dutifully paint over every morning but are now left bare. She considers earrings, tugging gently at her hanging earlobes, but decides against it.
I brush my hair and check my teeth and mostly watch her. This is a routine she’s done many times, but the motions are empty now. There’s no force behind them. I wonder where her mind’s at now, because it’s obviously not in the room with us. I don’t say anything that might upset her.
I think about my own home, which I’ve left in favor of these three August days in my childhood town. There is an apartment waiting for me, a doting husband, a bustling city filled with noise, a room waiting to become a nursery. And there are no basil plants there.
I sit at the top of the stairs, waiting for her to get dressed. She still only has two church dresses – it doesn’t take her long to pick one, the creamy linen one, and meet me. We walk together. She wants to hold my hand, and I let her. Neither of us lock the door.
The church is an old weathered building halfway between our spread of neighborhood and the rest of the town. As we walk, I listen for the hum of the forest, but I know it’s not there. It’s too late in the season for birds, or critters, or bee buzzes. As soon as the forest started molding over, everything that didn’t leave melted. So there is nothing to hear. It’s unnerving.
And it’s hot out. By the time we reach the church steps, my skin is damp and my clothes mold uncomfortably to the bends in my body. I pull at my hem absentmindedly while we file into the room, our place in line marked by the two young boys in front of us and the couple behind us, both of whom live in her neighborhood. I make murmured small talk with the ones I recognize, say hello to the pastor and hold onto my mother, whose hand has gone limp in mine. I don’t think she made the decision to stop holding it, I think she just forgot. Naturally I keep tethered to her despite the shared perspiration hot between our skin. Her calloused palm is slick against mine as I pull her to the pew. She sits on the inside. I sit on the outside, like usual. It feels protective. But anyone in this town would say it’s instinctual to be protective of our mothers.
Let go of my hand, she says, and pulls it from me.
I set my own in my lap.
Church makes me uncomfortable. I fidget. I am not sentimental, did not miss the chanting or the ceremonies. This is part of the reason I left, this maternal obsession.
The service feels long. We bless the nature around us. We sing hymns. We give thanks to the life-giving forces that reside here. There are a lot of them, and so this takes a while – all our mothers line up and we express gratitude that they have brought us to life. Thank you, mother, for delivering Lilith. Thank you, mother, for raising up the felled rosewood tree. Thank you, mother, for bringing back the basil plant.
After this, the pastor preaches about recognizing saints. We don’t have time for communion. Service over.
We mill about on the front lawn. I have lost sight of my mother, having let her hand go inside and not reaching for it again when we stood up to leave. In front of me is my old friend Perry, who wanted to leave but never did, who tells me his dog died last week.
I ask, can’t you see if your mother would bring him back?
He looks at me funny. Clarice, why would she?
I pause. My mother is getting to me. I say, because you loved him.
It’s not the same. Anyway, she hated that dog.
• • •
He leaves shortly after that. I follow him briefly, maybe to keep talking – is it weird to ask that? My mother wants to bring life back to every dead thing she encounters, that doesn’t make her better than yours, but why wouldn’t you resuscitate a dog, I know it’s not my place to tell a mother what to do, well anyways how have you been this past decade – but he’s gone, and before I can think to look any harder I see my own mother, who’s drifting down the lane toward town.
I call out to her – Mama!
She waves her hand, dismissing me. I still go after her, briskly, trying to catch up. Now that I’m closer, I can see what she sees – a lump of something red and runny, maybe a rabbit, struck down in the middle of the road.
Instinctively I imagine what she sees. A fetal something that needs life. She’s not to it yet, when I reach her. I grab for her hand and jolt us to a stop.
She looks back at me, confused, maybe a little hurt. She’s looking a little to the left of me, a result of the off-balance of her vision from the cataract, and I’m put off. Maybe because I went from looking at young, clean, grounded Perry to my wild mother, who in this moment wants nothing but to breathe life back into this poor pulped rabbit.
Mama, I say again, trying to decide what to do. Maybe she wants to help. But I take one look at the rabbit and I know that if she brings it back, it will squirm in its own purple gore until someone comes along to run it over again. It does not need life. It needs to be left alone.
She looks back at the rabbit and frowns.
It will get your dress dirty, I say cautiously, trying both to convince and not convince her. I take a peek over my shoulder at the church crowd up the hill. Some of them are watching us. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed. No other mother would think to bring back something so disfigured.
I miss the city. Shame wells up in my cheeks.
She reaches out halfway, leaning away from our interlocked hands, but not pulling her hand out.
Or maybe they’re judging me. For holding my mother back from a life she deems unfinished.
Mama, it’s going to be in pain, I whisper. Panic tightens my throat and my fingers close stiffly around hers.
Suddenly she stops, straightens up, excuses her hand from my clawing grip.
We need to go home, she says. We need to make lunch.
Thank you, mother, for sparing the death of the roadkill –
• • •
We don’t talk over the table. The basil plant is still there, partially blocking her from me. All I can see is one downcast eye, and the cataract that bobs underneath her eyelid. I can’t stop thinking about the rabbit. I can see it, exposed ribs sticking up like birthday candles, I can see what would’ve happened had I talked to Perry a few seconds longer. The quiver. No sound – no jaw, maybe no vocal cords – but the movement of something alive that shouldn’t be.
I peek again at her face, the milky film covering her iris, and wonder briefly, secretly, what she saw. Why she thought it needed to come back.
She says – Clarice.
I reach out and push the plant to the side, so I can see her clearly. She’s still in her linen dress and pearls. Yes?
I wasn’t going to do it.
I stare at her. I don’t believe her. She stares back for a beat, long enough for a small train of anxiety to rumble through my chest, and then says – how’s Perry?
He’s okay. We haven’t kept in touch.
You talked today.
I nod. She nods back.
We did. He’s a little sad.
Poor baby, she says. Why?
I pause, and look down at my leftover pesto, and lie – No reason. I stab a rotini and hold it up – He’s just sad.
She nods again, a few times, and then says, Clarice.
Rub my back tonight?
Sure thing, Mama.
• • •
I do it after I clear the table and wipe away any residual gray dribbles of pesto from the counter. Again, I feel my cheeks fill with shame when I realize I’m stalling to join her. She’s the whole reason I’m here visiting – my own guilt that I’ve gone almost ten years without visiting. Now that I’m here, I can remember why I put it off so long.
I chalk up my hesitance to the day’s events, fill the sink with sudsy water, and leave the dishes to soak. I leave my nerves inside of me and don’t touch them. It’s just my mother. She just wants her muscles unknotted. It’s just three days.
I help her with her pearls, and then pull up the ottoman behind her vanity stool to work at the tense spots in her shoulders and along her spine. She’s got the beginning of a hunch forming at the base of her neck from stooping so often. I work around it.
She just sits, staring at her own reflection or sometimes mine, sometimes closing her eyes and gently thumbing the eye with the hard film, because once she heard some TV doctor say it may help ease the irritation.
Her head hangs, her chin resting against her clasped hands. Once in a while I hear a sigh or the soft s from a whisper. I think she might be praying. Before her quiet spells, I would have told her about my life. Maybe told her what my husband and I are expecting. But now talking seems too much.
It’s too quiet. I can’t focus. She’s never tried to bring back something so obviously dead before, at least that I know of.
Mothers are life-givers, but they are not healers.
I finish with her back muscles. I finish the dishes. I put on my boots and walk down the road, toward Perry’s house, toward the woods.
I stop at his driveway. Part of me wants to knock, see if he saw the commotion today, maybe explain myself. I don’t want him to think I’m still weird, or that my mother is weird, or that I really think his mom should bring back his dog. I was just trying to be helpful. But I chicken out by the mailbox and keep walking after a minute, in case someone’s watching me. There are a few lights still on, and it’s fairly early. The sunset is still dying behind the trees.
The neighborhood road circles back to town, and in front of me is its sharp left turn. I stop at the corner, staring off into the night. Beyond the turn is the forest. I listen for something, maybe birds, maybe the hum I imagined might still warble quietly from inside. But there’s nothing. I can barely even see it through the dusk: the trees are just a curtain of slight black against the sinking brown sky.
I almost go, cross the brief hundred yards or so of dirt and weeds, stand closer, listen closer. But I don’t. Instead I turn around and walk back, quickly, trying not to think about the dead rabbit or the dead dog or the woods.
There are no lights on in my old house. It looks weathered, little one-story midwestern clapboard where my family has lived since they moved to Georgia, where I lived until I left. There used to be a barn, but that was torn down after a brutal storm that collapsed its roof. Now there’s just a little backyard and a straight shot to our neighbors to the south. The shutters are sagging. The trim is dark and riddled. I stand out on our gravel driveway longest of all, just staring, imagining my mother in her bed and re-hearing her murmuring prayers, thinking about her knotted hands and her knotted back and her nest of hair. And then I go inside, strip down and climb into my own bed without turning on any lights.
The next day, Perry knocks at our door to invite me out to catch up. My mother is still asleep, so I say yes and close the door behind us without inviting him in. We walk together, me quietly analyzing his mood for signs he’s upset about the dog thing, him shuffling along with his hands in his pockets. We don’t talk about anything important. His little sister is leaving for college soon, and that’s what we focus on.
We get breakfast at the only café in town and then spend the rest of the morning walking around, drinking leftover coffee, whining about the humidity.
I get home near two and go straight to the kitchen to make lunch. I dump my bag on the table, which shakes the basil plant. It’s starting to look a little limp and thirsty. I ignore it and go for a sandwich.
When I get to the bread, I pause and call out – Mama?
She doesn’t answer me. I leave the bread on the counter and pad my way to her room, peek in – it’s not like her to sleep this late. But her room is empty, her bed unmade, stool pushed out from the vanity. I check the bathroom, but that’s empty too, although the light is on. I switch it off without thinking and call out for her again. She’s not here.
My breath drops into my belly, uneasy. Did she go back to the rabbit?
No, she wouldn’t. That was just a lapse. She’s not that bad yet. I can also hear her voice from my childhood, telling me it’s not my place to tell her what she should and shouldn’t leave for dead.
Maybe she’s just gone out to get groceries. We’re almost down to the heels of the loaf.
I run through a list of places she might be, to calm myself. Post office, church, hardware store, a neighbor’s house, café.
All I can see in my mind’s eye is the rabbit drying on the road.
I have to go. Even if she’s already done it. Maybe I can kill it again before it suffers too much.
My stomach turns again at the thought. Already I’m out the door, bread left on the counter, screen door wide open. I half-run-half-walk to the road down past the church, panting but not feeling it. My legs work under me and I don’t notice it.
At the end of my tunnel vision is the church. I turn, nerves twanging discordantly inside of my lungs, to face the smear on the road.
As I get closer, it’s easier to see. There’s a crow a few feet away, hopping to avoid me, watching me suspiciously. Its beak is obviously bloodstained. The rabbit is still dead.
My nerves don’t break. I stop, looking down at it, at a loss. Where is she?
I turn a little half-circle, looking around in case she’s on her way here, or somewhere nearby. In my mind I imagine I see her at the crest of the hill, still in her church dress, even though I know she’d never wear that on any day but Sunday.
After a few minutes, it’s apparent that even if she was here, she’s not anymore. I try to take a shaky breath. Maybe I should just go back and wait for her.
Since I’m already close to town, I decide to just go and check. If she’s there, I’ll walk her home. Hold her hand. Make sure she’s okay.
For the second time today, I wander around Main Street, this time nervous for a different reason. I can’t put a finger on it, on why I can’t calm down. The sick feeling in my gut won’t wane. I sit with it as I walk, trying to reassure it that she’s okay.
I’m sure she’s okay, I think. It’s not her that I’m worried about.
She’s not in town, either. By now it’s nearing three, and despite my anxiety a more physical hunger is pressing me to return home, to the unfinished sandwich I left on the counter.
And anyway, she’s got to be home by now.
• • •
I get there in time to see her coming back from the other direction, carrying a tinfoiled plate.
I ask her when we get close enough to hear each other – where were you?
She looks at me and then says, Perry invited me over for lunch.
My heart drops. She says, I brought home a serving for you. It’s a roast. And then she holds it out to me, an offering, the tinfoil reflecting the afternoon sun and nearly blinding me. I take it into my unfeeling hands and follow her inside.
I spend my afternoon walking on eggshells. After I eat the roast, I roam the den until my mother decides to hole up in there with me. Since then I’ve been in my old room, window open, door cracked, listening, just in case.
There’s a book propped open on my desk, but I’m not really reading it. Every time I sit down again after a pace, my mind wanders. I think about Perry’s mom, whom I only know from our proximity. Perry and I, being two of a class of twenty, had been obligatory friends since preschool. His mother, I know, makes delicious cream cheese sandwiches. I know she’s a teacher and runs a book club. And I know she’s never brought anything back to life. All she’s done is give birth, twice, which seemed enough for her.
My own mother is restless. I look down blankly at the page under my nose and think about everything she’s brought back.
The first time, she did it to explain to me what a mother is. She found a housefly that had curled in on itself on our windowsill, set it on the kitchen table, and told me – Clarice, this is what I did for you. And once it was alive again, she said – this is what happened in my belly.
After that she did it once with a mouse our now-deceased cat got to. It was mostly intact, just a broken neck, which didn’t mend when it returned to life. That was after one of her quiet spells. I think she was trying to reconnect, to reanimate our own relationship when she decided she was done staring out the window. The mouse only lasted a day. When I told Perry about it, he gave me a weird look and his mother wouldn’t let him play at my house anymore.
Once she did it out of spite.
I was fifteen and only wanted to peek into our backyard tree where a sparrow had decided to build her nest. Two young eggs sat quietly, waiting, in their twig cradle. I’d reached in, intending only to touch, really, just wanting to feel the creamy warm shells, when I lost my footing and pulled the nest down in trying to catch my fall.
Which I did. I was fine, shimmied down the tree intact, at least until I found the nest, upside-down, the two embryonic baby birds flayed out over the turf. Their skin looked eerily similar to mine. Pink, goose-bumped – except mine was alive, and theirs was dead, and flecked with bits of creamy eggshell.
I didn’t tell my mother, afraid that she would yell. Which she did, when she finally found out. Clarice I could have saved them how dare you interrupt life like this, I raised you better than that! And then – Is This What You Want? She reached down and raked her fingers through the grass, coming up with a handful of baby bird.
I screamed. Nononononono –
She did it anyway. The bird resumed whatever consciousness it had inside its egg, which seemed to be limited. It wriggled a little in my mother’s shaking hand.
Next time, tell me, My mother spat, and let the bird fall from her hand.
It only wriggled for a few more seconds, and then it died again next to its sister.
I took both of them that night and buried them as close to the woods as I dared to go, which Perry helped with. I didn’t tell him what my mother had done. I was frazzled, sobbing uncontrollably, trying to be gentle with the shoebox. And even then I knew this was something that Perry’s mother would never do.
It was only important that I bury them far away from her, I’d thought. So they can stay how they are. And then, two years later, I left.
In front of me, the book lies limp. Its pages splay out from its spine. I’ve been trying to finish it all summer. But tonight it seems I’m not going to get any closer to the end. I hear creaking on the floorboards and track it mentally. My mother’s feet pad from the easy chair to the kitchen and back again, pausing, before heading down the hall toward me.
Then she knocks on the door. Clarice?
She comes in with a can of soda for me and asks if I would brush her hair. Which I do, using the soft bristled brush that lives in her bathroom drawer. It takes a lot longer than a back rub and by the time I’m done, it’s almost dinner time. I haven’t even opened the soda, I’ve been so invested in the tangles at the base of her skull. Every time I pulled at the rat’s nest there, I caught a glimpse of the waxy skin along her shoulder blades and the back of her neck.
We eat salad for dinner, and then watch television until it’s dark out.
I have to finish my book for school, I tell her once I feel I’ve watched enough.
She doesn’t respond. The TV glints off her cataract.
I get up anyway and steal back into my room. The book stays where it’s been all day. I don’t try to read it. I lay on the bed for a minute, closing my eyes, pretending to be asleep. I can hear the television running, the occasional laugh track resounding off the wallpaper.
Next, I do bedtime things despite the early hour. Clean my teeth, take a shower, brush my own hair. I sniff my mother’s lavender hand lotion and put it back, opting instead for my travel-sized moringa. I love the smell of lavender, but currently it’s making me feel sick. One more day. Less than one day, really, my flight is at one tomorrow.
I can still hear the TV when I’m done with everything. I lay back down on my bed, intending to sleep, but the sound is grating at my eardrums. I’m too nervous to close the door so I just lay there, flopping back and forth for a few minutes, trying to soothe myself to sleep. No, Clarice, you’re not going to have another nightmare. No, Clarice, she’s not going to watch TV for much longer. She hates the evening options.
I decide it’s been too long after half an hour of lying with no sleep in sight. I creep quietly down the hall, looking in on the den, expecting to see her passed out in the chair. Head lolling, maybe snoring a little, maybe curled up into a tight little ball. Maybe I can tell her finally, the news. Mama, I’m pregnant.
Instead I look in on an empty room, TV playing to no one. The front door is shut, but through its window I see that the screen is wide open and swinging a little in the breeze. The floor gets very cold under my feet.
I don’t think – I just sprint for the door, leaving it wide open as I run. Perry’s house is near. I think quickly – If she’s there, she’s there for his dog. I have to do something. If she’s not there yet … I think back on the baby birds. Burying them as far away as possible – yes, I’ll do that, I’ll rebury the dog in the woods –
I hurry between two houses to come out on Perry’s backyard. I can see the plot of dirt where he buried the pet, a dark edgeless mound near the chain-link fence. The few weeds that frame it bend in quiet prayer over the grave. It’s all illuminated in sharp contrast, white glint and dark shadow, by the backyard light. I make a cursory glance into their windows – there’s no one there – before hitching myself over the fence and landing with a twist on my knees.
I stay there for a minute, trying to breathe, trying to hear. I know she’s here, or at least on her way. I just know it, the way I know that she’s going to ask me to stay longer, the way I know she thinks this is the right thing to do, which she’s thought about every dead thing she’s encountered. I can see it in her – alive is better, Clarice, always choose alive.
I half-crawl to the edge of the mound, pushing clumps of dirt aside with my fingers. I feel roots and marbles of soil embedding themselves under my nails.
I met the dog once. It was a decent size, a shepherd, and carrying it is going to be no easy task. All I know is that I have to get it out. Exhume it.
As I claw into the earth, I try to calm myself down. At least it’s fresh. At least it’s not going to be gory, it’s just a body, it’s going to be fine, I just have to be quick about it, as long as no one sees they won’t judge me, they won’t even know it was me, hell they won’t ever even know. I will leave tomorrow. The dog will dissolve in the woods in a matter of days. They can get a new one. I’ll never bring it up to Perry again, ever again – I will never visit ever again –
By now I’m in about a foot, cupping my hands to shovel out the loose dirt and using my sore fingers to rip into the packed silt. My arms up to my elbows are blackened, filthy, my pajamas are, too. I use my shoulder to wipe clammy sweat from my brow and continue.
With my next claw into the earth I feel something new – burlap. I pull at it – it’s heavy. The dog is buried in a potato sack. I reach again and I feel the sickening pull of a limb – a leg maybe, or the tail – moving without restriction. There are no living muscles to hold it taut. When I yank at it, it feels like pulling at a plush toy’s arm.
I brush more dirt off the sack and haul it up, and that’s when I hear voices from inside the house.
I freeze, afraid to look.
I hear Perry’s voice first, but no words. Then I hear my mother. She says, muffled by the screen window and the distance – I just wanted to say how sorry I am about Jester.
I turn my head slightly, to see what I can see. There they are, my mother and Perry, clustered around the dining table. In my mother’s hands is a bouquet of flowers. Fresh white daisies. I think I can see Perry smiling.
I look down at the bag, wet from the soil. It bulges out from the bottom of this hole I’ve dug. I reach down to keep digging – she’s not just bringing flowers, she’s going to try to bring back the dog – I know it – The whole town will ostracize her –
I can see the faces of the church crowd, judgmental, Godly, watching her reach toward the dead rabbit. I see Perry’s face when I asked him if he was going to bring back his dead dog.
I haul the bag out of the hole and balance it on the edge, against my leg. It’s heavy. I can see the outline of a canine form inside of it, curved in at weird angles.
Am I too late? No, they haven’t seen me yet. I put my hands down on the bag, palms curved gently over its soft limp body, try to calm my heart. I can feel my heartbeat in my belly. I take a minute to catch my breath, to try and plan how I’m going to get this thing over the fence.
As I pause there, I feel something else. Against my lap, the bag twitches. I hear the first animal sound I’ve heard all day – a soft whine, coming from under the burlap. I look down at my hands, and then back up, eyes filling with tears, to meet my own mother’s confused gaze.
I feel the dog’s tail wag against my leg. I can’t think of anything to do. My brain has gone numb. My swollen fingers pulse. I don’t have to say it. She looks down at my lap, at the living dog, and she knows.
Copyright © 2020 by Casey Forest