a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
I. The Goldcutter
Most people remember my mother for one thing: her golden hair.
Everyone used to treat it like it was something to behold, but I’ve always thought hair was hair and that was it. Then again I wasn’t blessed with Mother’s blondeness, or her beauty for that matter, as both Mother and the other neighborhood matrons have been keen to point out.
I’ve heard my mother was a whippersnapper when she was my age. She had legs as long as cornstalks and could just about kill you with her smile. She had all her teeth in back then, too, although now it’s hard to imagine my mother without her front left tooth so blatantly missing. I asked her how she lost that tooth and she never answered. Mother didn’t answer most questions.
In truth there’s more to my mother than her looks—so much that it’s hard to keep count, but you try anyway. One, don’t be alarmed if the sun comes up and the house is a ghost town. I’ve learned that a day without my mother is a panic, but a week without her is fifty-six hours of beauty sleep. Most times I wished she’d never come back at all.
Two, never bring up her father, or any man she ever could have known personally for that matter. It’s funny, if funny is the word for it, how she would turn on the local news and swoon over the guy suspected of double homicide, but soon as you mentioned the man who raised her or the man who was supposed to raise me she looked like she could hit you or worse.
There isn’t really a third thing, more like a hundred thousand other pieces blurring together. Don’t let her come home to dishes stacked up or else she’ll throw something, maybe one of those dirty dishes. When she tells you she’s going out to smoke, believe her and never ever stop her. Or else you might end up with a scar in the shape of a cigarette butt over your elbow.
I couldn’t forget the most important rule: do not ever, no matter the circumstances, enter her bedroom. When I was younger, she did whatever she could to keep me out. She told me there were human heads and she’d add mine to her collection. On one occasion she swallowed the key.
In all my childhood, there was only one time I went in.
I was four years old. My mother was humming.
At first I thought there was someone else in the house, more likely an alien than her all alone. My mother didn’t hum, not ever and never again, but that day her voice was smooth as cherries. She sang like she belonged in a bar in the city with a cigarette between her teeth, wine between her fingers, not in the usual way. I tiptoed through the house like I was in high heels, all cute so maybe Mother wouldn’t make a fuss when she realized I’d been listening the whole time.
As I got closer, as I realized those sounds were coming from the black cracks of her bedroom door, a tainted reality set in. With my ear against the hardwood I could approximate the dimensions of the room by the way her voice bounced off the walls. Her hums, bold and ethereal, filled the empty spaces of what had to be the biggest room that had ever been built.
My mother didn’t make mistakes, just bad choices; that’s the reason she had a tooth out and an addiction to things I couldn’t pronounce. But she was always in control, and she seldom, if ever, had regrets. To this day I’m convinced that everything she did had a reason. Everything she did was a gateway. And so with the key still in the keyhole and my mother humming like someone had to hear it, I found my bony four-year-old fingers twisting the doorknob open.
My mother’s knees were against the floorboards, eyes facing the dead bulbs around her vanity mirror. She had scissors in her hands and a trail of blood running from where she had chipped her widow’s peak. Mother hummed until light flooded the room and my silhouette appeared in the whites of her eyes.
She had cut almost all of it off, the hair that once went down all the way to her buttocks, so that there were now only pieces still clinging to her scalp, an ocean of gold covering the floor. She shrieked when she saw me. I supposed, in that moment, that it wasn’t meant to be.
Mother hurried me out and slammed the door behind her, unable to make any eye contact. Crying hard, she tossed the key out of the window she left open to feel the breeze, because as she had always said, the air breathed even when she couldn’t. Later that day I saw her digging out there until she had found its paperclip shape in all the wood chips. She kissed her closed fist, looked both ways, and then came back inside through the back door. I sat in the living room and pretended I had seen nothing.
The unpredictability became predictable. Eventually—I couldn’t tell you when—I was the one watching my mother grow up, or whatever the opposite is. It was like staring at a tree in the summer until the autumn came and tore the leaves off its limbs, one by one, and the tree wasn’t so beautiful anymore.
I never asked Mother why she cut off all her hair.
She would not have answered.
When I left her, I wasn’t planning on it.
Mother was on one of her week-long disappearances to nowhere at all. It’s not like I couldn’t count on her to come back. She had left me for much longer when I was much younger, so it didn’t bother me that she was gone. It was a voice that guided me out, an opportunity. A ghost was sitting on my shoulder and telling me to look out at the sun, so bright and warm, as if it was my first time seeing it.
If I had planned it I would not have left then and there. The leaves were unfolding, turning inside out from the depths of their tumbleweed branches. Simply put, it was the end of March, and my mother was going to do her spring cleaning. Once I was gone I knew she would never get through it without me.
Garbage bags built up beside the mailbox, and cracked bottles still cluttered around the porch. The front yard looked as if there had been some sort of war between cigars and cigarettes, no clear winner and no survivors in sight. But she was going to clean it up. She always did, so long as I held her hand and took her outside in the early morning, her least favorite time of day, to introduce her to the sky. If there was no one to tell her it was spring she would never know.
The day I left, I only stepped out of the door to remind myself that the world still had a pulse. But with the quiet sky, the breeze coming in and out of the harbor, the emptiness and the nobody, I found myself walking down the pathway until I remembered how to run.
The last time I saw my mother I was sitting in someone else’s chair, someone else’s living room, someone else’s walls. My high school friend’s house, to be exact, a three-story Victorian between a one-way street and a sharp turn. Like every night, I was waiting for the streetlights to finish up painting the neighborhood in their asynchronous manner. And there, coming up the sidewalk, was my mother.
I grabbed the pillow and held it against my stomach, as if it could hide me. I held my breath, as if she would hear my every gasp, as if she would come inside this house and burn it to the ground.
But Mother was not angry; she was sad. You could tell what kind of sad by the tug in her eyes—a sadness that can’t be named but everyone knows. She wasn’t blind either; she saw me right there, looking at her, and that’s when she stopped moving. We both stayed put for a while.
When my mother finally turned around, I found she had possessed me. My body was no longer my own. My arms, my legs, my ears, my mother took it all away from me until I could feel her heart beating inside my own rib cage. I drove my fingers through my hair thinking it was hers, hoping something would regrow.
II. My Mother
When Mother died, it was raining. It rained when they found her in the creek. It’s raining now.
They say Mother died by mysterious circumstances. A man driving up the bridge over the forest reserve saw her golden hair sticking out of all the browns and greens of the woods. She was face-down in the creek, and the straw sunhat she wore on her nights out, now dampened by the earth, sat on the bank a couple of feet away from her. When I came in to see her I was shocked to see that her face looked no deader now than it did when she was alive.
Later I purchased a locksmith to come and open Mother’s bedroom door. Once he was finished, I walked into the room without turning on the lights, somehow hoping that I’d never see anything, that it would remain a secret like it’s always been.
The room was mostly empty—devoid even of windows but still outfitted with the cracked vanity mirror. A picture frame hung on the wall, knocked off the center a couple of degrees because why not. I knew at once that the bug-eyed baby held firmly inside was me. Then there was the wood chest under her bed, about the size of a shoebox. Inside, I think, was the perfect semblance of who she was: a shining revolver and a box of blonde dye. Mother had been dying for a while now.
“A funeral is not meant to be sad,” the reverend says, putting a limp hand on my back. I’m not surprised we’re the only ones here.
Who was my mother? I don’t know, and I guess I never did know. I never knew who she was before the top spun off the table. I never knew a woman who smiled with her teeth, who spoke with a steady voice, who wore a different pantsuit to each formal event.
The only certain thing is that her death was not an accident. No, she wasn’t planning on it, but people do a lot of things without ever thinking.
I should be looking at her gravestone right now. I should do something to convince the reverend that I’m not a walking corpse. But all I can think of is a projection of her standing on the outside of the bridge, dancing even though she knew it could kill her, falling off the railing with her hands up above her head like she’s going down a roller coaster. That was the first thing my mind had come up with when they told me about it, and by now it’s nothing less than the truth.
The real mystery is why she left me behind. It’s why I wish I could see her face again, hear her coming through the doorway with her stiletto waltz, know she’s hungry by the way she steps. It’s why I now feel the same way my mother died: broken already.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.