Lucine Carsen, Grade 10
Mother’s stories make me want to scream.
Since I was a little one, I remember curling up in her smooth honeyed voice, drinking in word after intoxicating word, breathing out the alien landscapes she would paint in gold through the air. When I was young, I hardly paid attention to the setting of the stories. Of course I listened, but I thought they were fished straight out of the same part of her brain where stories of fairies and dragons and princesses were birthed.
I almost wish they were.
But I remember hearing for years and years about the tall, rough, powerful women called “trees” reaching up to the pristine sky with their toes in the earth, and then suddenly catching her off-guard, whispering to herself a few months ago about missing their company. Another day, missing the company of those little white shavings of cloud that would fall to the ground like a crystalline blanket, something she would call “snow.” I caught her whispering about more and more wonderful things, things too magical and alien to have ever been real. And then whispering about being so lonely. And so low. And so lost.
But she’s not the only one who’s lost.
Not familiar as in I’d heard it before, but familiar as in I was familiar with its source.
It was last month, I’m sure. We were standing in the kitchen, making chicken noodle soup for dinner. As I was pressing more dried chicken through the spiralizer, the fluorescent metal-grated lantern on the counter flickered out again, pitching us into blackness. As I went over to try and shake it back on, a strange, animal-like noise slipped so quietly into my subconscious that it took me half a minute to even notice it. Once I did, the only reason I didn’t scream or grab the butcher knife on the counter was that this sound was familiar. Not familiar as in I’d heard it before, but familiar as in I was familiar with its source.
“Mother, are you okay?” I remember saying. What an insignificant, pathetic, unanswerable thing to say.
And she did not answer. Or, not with words. Instead, her noises got louder, and louder, and louder, until the ripping and shattering and unbearable sound of someone you love crying drew blood from my ears. Tore at my mind. So, naturally, the invisible, ratty, tangled cat’s-cradle bond between us tugged me in her direction, and I began inching through the darkness toward where I thought she was standing. I face-planted into a wall.
I must’ve let out a gasp or something, because Mother’s noises stopped. I turned around, trying to see anything in the unbreakable absence of light, and then let out another gasp when I felt something brush past me.
“Come with me, Eden, or don’t come with me,” Mother said. “It is your choice.”
I was pretty confused, so I asked her what on Earth she meant, but Mother didn’t respond. Instead, I heard a sort of creaking near the wall, a rickety metallic sound with pointed, piercing edges. And then the tiny but earth-bending noise of a key in a lock. Everything she’d betrayed to me over the past weeks surfaced from the depths of my mind, and I immediately knew where she was going.
“You know you can’t go up there. Especially not now.”
“It’s yellow season.”
Still no response.
“Mother, it’s yellow season! You can’t go outside!”
The creaking of the metal trapdoor opening above us scraped the breath out of my lungs. I think I screamed. A slimy, freezing hand inside me was clasping my heart in its hand, squeezing it as rays of moonlight shimmied in slivers through the widening gap in the ceiling. Mother was standing on the ladder beneath it, a terrifying glint in her eyes.
Instinctively, I snatched a cloth off the kitchen counter, tying it around my nose and mouth so tightly I almost suffocated as I watched little particles of dust falling down, the fist clenching tighter around my heart. London Bridge is falling down, I suddenly thought, remembering the song Mother used to sing to me. I couldn’t help but imagine each and every speck of dirt as infected, rotting, festering with yellow-tinged lead. And the words spilled out before I even knew they were coming.
“We’re all going to die someday, but I think you’ve already gone.”
The trapdoor in the ceiling was now wide open, and Mother looked down from it, her face an expressionless piece of marble some Greek sculptor put away and forgot about—I couldn’t help but wonder if the ancient Greeks were real too—but all of that didn’t scare me nearly as much as the trapdoor, the trapdoor open, the trapdoor is open, it’s letting everything in, run, run away, cover your nose, scream, dig a hole, hide in it, you might as well dig your own grave now—
I was right. But I was also a fool.
Because Mother didn’t scare me enough.
I remember she looked down at me with a look that crystallized me on the spot and said, “Eden, there is no Eden anymore, and it is all our fault.”
And she vanished into the moonlight.
She came back after a few hours and took some anti-lead pills from a yellow bottle. The same bottle that the doctor had handed her with a knowing look when we went to the office before yellow season started. A look that must’ve said I know you’re not going to last the whole season underground if I was smart enough to pay attention. But I wasn’t. Of course I wasn’t.
It was only after a week or so of digging deep as I treated Mother’s resulting joint pain and headaches that I fished out what my name, Eden, meant. When she first told me—I have to be honest—I burst out laughing. I wasn’t amused at all, or maybe I was in some strange way, but it was all so hysterical. She started to cry.
I wanted Eden. I wanted to consume it.
And every time I pictured this Eden she told me about, some worshipped garden from some ancient mythology, I couldn’t see the lush greens and bright flowers that I could when she used to feed me other stories. All I saw were grayed husks of vines, rotting stumps of trees, ashy weeds so brittle they would disintegrate at the touch, everything covered in layers of putrid yellow and decaying brown and phantom gray. My own, personal Eden. Everyone’s Eden.
Yes, Mother’s stories have always made me want to scream. But now, it’s so much more than that.
Mother’s stories make me want to die.
What she said a month ago stuck. Eden, there is no Eden anymore, and it is all our fault. It haunted me. It still haunts me.
At this point, she’d stopped referring to me by my name.
So, naturally, I started to go digging for answers again, fishing in her mind and hoping I pulled out something big enough to hold me until dinner. But I couldn’t catch anything that big, just little morsels of information, of storytelling. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction.
One of the things she told me is, “You know, chicken noodle soup used to be made of sliced chicken, egg noodles, and chopped vegetables. Not noodles made of chicken.”
I didn’t know what to do with this piece of information.
She also began telling me stories of purely fiction. Those unicorns and dragons and mermaids that ruled over my childhood, well, they came back in full force. It started slowly, but then she began vomiting up more and more fantasy up to the point where she couldn’t stop. Maybe she was trying to lose herself in sparkly make-believe, I don’t know, but eventually she would continue whispering fairy tales even when I wasn’t in the room. When I heard her, I always pictured fairy dust spilling out of her mouth and sprinkling the entire house with gold when she would speak of them, but in my imagination it would always fade to yellow, brown, and gray before disappearing. I could never keep it there, and neither could Mother.
One day, perhaps two weeks ago, Mother was sitting on her gray mattress across from mine, leaning against the wall she had papered with rainbows and flowers for me when I was a toddler. It suddenly struck me that she had never taken the paper down. That day, she had her knees up to her chest, draped in a woven golden blanket she said she’d had for a long time. Her arms were curled underneath the blanket along with the rest of her body even though it wasn’t a cold day. I was lying on my bed facing the opposing wall, deeply invested in watching lint balls race down the edge of the bedsheet, when I realized she was speaking in stories again.
I turned to her, seeing her huddled under her blanket, the thing that gave her comfort and protection. Fairy tales oozed out of her mouth and down her neck, leaving slime trails of fairy dust that quickly decomposed into toxic minerals under my glare. For some reason, a yellowy flash of anger momentarily blinded me, and I sat up. “Stop it.”
She didn’t notice, so I repeated myself again. The drooling of fake comfort-worlds ceased, and I looked her in the eye. There was not much in there.
“Are you not even going to say anything back?”
She stared blankly at me for a moment too long before replying with, “What do you want me to say?”
I wasn’t really expecting that. “There are too many things I want you to say.”
“Like what?” Her eyes looked so innocent, so sad. Is this what she meant when she introduced the term “puppy-dog eyes” to me last year? I’ve never seen a puppy, so I can only imagine. But right then, Mother was not an innocent baby puppy, she was a malfunctioning lockbox full of glistening golden information. Not fairy tales.
“You know exactly what you should say,” I told her, “and yet you don’t.”
“No, I don’t, I…” She trailed off, sinking back into a faux gold ocean far too deep for her to stay afloat in.
I didn’t know why I was so angry in the first place, but I just got angrier. I found myself on my feet, moving toward her with thundering steps. “That night you went outside, you said something about ‘it’ being all your fault.”
Her expression didn’t flicker, but she drew the blanket tighter around herself.
“When I was little, you told me stories about how things used to be, but you acted as if they were as fake as the worthless fairy tales that you seem to love. But those stories were all real. And you didn’t tell me. How is that not wrong?”
She looked down intently at the golden threads of her blanket.
“And this Garden of Eden? A beautiful paradise, just like what you say the world used to be?” My mind was turning wildly, spilling its thoughts out through my mouth as soon as they formed. “And it doesn’t exist anymore, just like how that world is gone?” I dropped to my knees at the side of her bed, locking my gaze onto her eyes, refusing to let go no matter how hard it was, how much it hurt to look her in the eye in that moment. “And you said it was all your fault?” I stopped, trying my hardest to breathe without sucking in any of her imaginary glitter. “What did you do?”
She finally looked back up at me, and I watched as tears started to fall from her eyes. Tears free of fairy dust. She stayed silent, and I felt no pain on her behalf as I stood back up.
“What did you do?” I ripped off her blanket and she screeched, curling herself into a tighter ball as I dropped the ratty thing onto the ground. “Tell me! What did you do?”
She screamed again. The noise clawed its way through my gut, further infuriating me.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?”
I froze and looked at her. Her head was still burrowed in the tangle of her limbs. Something in me faltered. “What do you mean, ‘nothing’?”
“I mean nothing! Everything! I don’t know! It wasn’t my fault! Or maybe it was! I— I…”
“I DON’T KNOW!”
The sheer volume at which she screeched out her reply shocked me to my very core. I couldn’t move. I’d gotten to her. But it didn’t fill me with the satisfaction or the horror my anger had been lusting for.
“I tried…” she whispered. “We tried… but they didn’t listen… maybe we didn’t try hard enough… it was too late…”
“Mother, what do you mean?” Her withered vulnerability sent a blistering bolt of guilt through my body as I caved back to the ground. “What do you mean?”
Eden is gone. Life is gone.
She met my gaze. “We knew the end of the world was coming for a long time. Some of us actually cared about it… we tried to get others to listen. But what others were doing… they benefited from it. Destroying the world was the contents of their bank vaults. No amount of protesting we could do would change their minds. And now… well, now, the world is over.” She laughs. “Eden is gone. Life is gone. Because this, this right here, this is not life. At least, this is not what life should be.” She sobbed and laughed hysterically, and I felt my chest tighten further. “And, Eden…” my name caught in her throat, in my ears. “Eden, I was just a child.”
I didn’t understand any of what I was taking in, or maybe I did, I don’t know. I couldn’t possibly know. I knew all Mother wanted was for me to reach out to her, or to go away, or just do something at least, but I couldn’t move. I was so sick of not being able to move. All I could do was feel a loose thread of her golden blanket on the floor caressing my ankle like a broken promise.
“Go look in my closet. The yellow box. You can see that I’m telling the truth,” Mother said, as if worried that I wouldn’t believe her. And the way I’d been acting, there was no wonder, but somehow I was still hurt by the thought. But I was also curious. And heart-stricken, and confused, and lost, floating around like a ghost…
I found myself standing in front of the little closet at the end of the kitchen. Mother never let me open it before. In fact, it and its unknown contents used to fascinate me, and I came up with all kinds of heist plans before she convinced me there were monsters inside so I’d stay away. Now, that childlike fascination was back, and I took a shallow breath before wrenching open the doors.
Where are the monsters?
I blinked several times. Where are the monsters? I thought for a moment, forgetting how old I was, before shaking the thought away, embarrassed. Inside the closet on metal shelves sat whole families of cardboard boxes, some colorful or painted, others untouched by art supplies. On one of the top shelves, slid far back, was a large box with a bad golden paint job. Art was never Mother’s strong suit, and she barely ever bought paints anyway. Too rare, too expensive.
After pulling out the box, I put it down on the floor and sunk down next to it. The top of the box was dusted with golden glitter, unlike the plain yellow sides. I think I probably zoned out staring at it, my mind racing, but I eventually opened it.
Torn letters. Bent notebooks. Printed photographs. Folded cloths. Stuffed bags. And more. So much more. But I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at, or rather, the significance of what I was looking at. So I reached into the box, pulling out the first thing I felt brush against my palm. It was a photograph, but I needed better lighting if I was ever going to decipher what was actually on the filmy paper. So I grabbed the nearest handheld lantern and sat it down next to the box.
Once upon a time, there were three girls. One of them had long, beautiful black hair that framed deep, thoughtful eyes. She didn’t have a name. The second girl had cropped, charming sandy hair that revealed a confident, beaming smile. She didn’t have a name. The third one would, a long time from then, be named Mother. The warm skin of these three girls was hidden in fathomless black fabric, on which they had drawn in ivory marker. Words with meaning. These three girls sat in the bed of a rusty sepia pickup truck, which was sitting idle by the side of a long, crowded stretch of charcoal asphalt. Waiting, ready, just like its occupants. Electricity ran through the circuits of the truck and the veins of the girls. These girls were real. Their hands clutched onto dented squares of creamy poster boards scribbled over in ebony marker. Words with meaning. These girls wanted a happily-ever-after. Soon, they would be screaming for one. One for everyone. But not everyone wanted a happily-ever-after for everyone. And no one lived happily ever after. The end.
I stared at the photograph as if I was swimming around inside it. As if I were the photograph itself. And I knew what they were going to do. And yet, I couldn’t believe it that the girl right beneath my thumb was Mother, was who she used to be.
I dropped the photo and reached back into the box, pulling out a small cloth bag filled with some kind of cylinders. Reaching in, I grabbed onto one of these strange objects and brought it into my line of vision. “Spray paint,” I read quietly, staring at the candy red can. I set it aside, pulling several other cans out of the bag, each with a different color. Blue, pink, purple… one of them was yellow, another gold.
There were other things in the bag, too, like scissors and pens and duct tape. There was also a small stack of folded papers. I took one and examined it closely. There were words on it, whole paragraphs, whole pages’ worth.
“Fight for the climate.”
“Be an activist.”
“Our future is at stake…”
Even though I focused on and breathed in every single word, it all merged into one singular blurry thing. I was so confused, and yet could see so clearly.
I pulled out one of the folded cloths, beginning to unfurl it in my lap. It turned out to be a lot larger than I’d first assumed, and I ended up having to spread the neon green fabric all the way across the floor. It was some sort of banner, I realized, a banner that read, The Climate Is Changing And So Should We! Below this phrase, in smaller lettering, was Hey, Coca-Cola, Stop Getting Filthy Rich From Filthing Up Our Future! I wondered what that phrase, “climate change,” which had plastered itself to every available surface inside Mother’s box, meant. Someone had dipped their hands in black and red paint and pressed their palms against the edges of the banner fabric, creating an eerie border. I wondered whose hands those were; if they were still attached to a living, breathing body.
I rooted through the rest of Mother’s box, then all of it over and over again. There were so many more photos, photos that captured young Mother and others just like her, waving signs in front of marble buildings, spray-painting messages on brick walls, blocking roads with long banners just like the ones in her box. So many more papers, recycled papers with elegant and terrifying sketches of the world on fire, papers inked with detailed plans and warnings and solutions, papers scribbled over with pencil for someone who might actually finally understand. So many more bags, bags full of old expired art supplies, bags ripped and torn from the strain of carrying so much cargo, bags containing little trinkets and mementos from people of the past. Mother, once upon a time. Mother in a fairy tale in which no princess lived happily ever after. Mother, once upon a time, in a fairy tale that was not a fairy tale at all.
I found myself in the bedroom again, still clutching that first photograph in my hand. Mother was still leaning against the wall, but she had started to unfurl from her ball. Her eyes had been closed, and I saw her eyelids flutter open when she heard me approach.
“Eden,” she breathed softly.
“Mother.” I stared down at my hands, at the photo in my hands. “Mother, was...”
I looked up, confused, as she continued.
“It was. It was hard. It was easy. It was frustrating. It was freeing. It was the worst thing in the world when I finally realized no one was listening, when I realized that all along money had always been worth so much more than the lives of their own children. But it just was.”
I felt the photograph slip from between my fingers and flutter to the floor before I could catch it. The people mother spoke of… they were thieves. They stole my future, my present, my everything, too.
And that’s when I realized. Mother’s stories don’t just make me want to die. Mother’s stories make me want to kill.
That evening, dinner began in silence. We sat across from each other on the floor on flattened cream cushions, the low square table a sort of barrier, not between us but between our voices. As I stared at her face, trying to ignore the ferocity that had inflamed my veins since her revelations as she avoided my gaze, I sipped from the mug in front of me, ignoring the purified water’s metallic taste. As if in response, she nibbled on a tiny piece of flatbread that we bought from the woman two homes down before yellow season started, the same woman with the hydroponic garden. Her bread is cheaper than her vegetables.
In an attempt to break the silence, I faked a cough, but Mother didn’t even flinch. I then took the more direct route, announcing, “This bread is better than the last batch.”
“Hmm.” Not much of a response from Mother, but at least it wasn’t nothing.
“The lady who makes it is very rich, right?” I asked, trying to keep a conversation going. I didn’t want my newfound admiration for her—and maybe my newfound anger—to die out with silence.
Mother nodded, but there was something behind her eyes that troubled me.
“Is she mean to you when you buy from her?” I said, trying to fish some information out.
“Well… not really,” Mother told me in a shaky voice I could picture tiptoeing nervously across a stranger’s floor.
“That’s not a very convincing answer,” I replied, now genuinely curious about this strange, wealthy woman. “You usually tell me immediately if someone’s a good person or not.” I watched for any shift in her expression, anything revealed in her eyes, but it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in her head. “Well, is she?”
“I don’t think I can answer that question.” Mother stared into her lap. I decided it was time to take a more direct route. “Why?”
“Because why?” I asked, reminding myself of the annoying questions I used to pester her with as a toddler.
“Well, she had a very complicated past.”
“As in what way?” I wondered aloud. But then something clicked. “Wait, does this have something to do with your box?” I questioned, imagining all sorts of possibilities in my head.
Mother sighed, setting down a strip of flatbread she had been tensely chewing on. “In a way, yes.”
“In what way?” I found myself leaning forward like a ravenous pet near a treat. “What did she do?” What did you do? echoed in my mind like a snippet of a forgotten love song. The same phrase I had shrieked at her earlier that day.
Mother locked eyes with me for a moment. “Nothing,” she said. “She did nothing.” I could tell she didn’t mean it in a way that suggested this woman was free of blame, so I pressed for more details. “What do you mean?”
I could see surrender flicker though her eyes as she let out another sigh. “Well, this woman, she… did you read all the essays and flyers that were in my box? The little pieces of paper?”
I nodded impatiently, tearing off a piece of flatbread with my teeth like a “wild animal,” as Mother would say.
“Well, then you know that there were people out there who… to them, in a very indirect way, the end of the world was good, because they were the ones causing it… and they were causing it as a result of the ways they made money. And Eden, so much money. They had so, so much money, and clearly, their money was important to them. So they refused to change their ways, to give their children a future, to even listen to any of us trying to show them what they did was wrong.”
“Was this woman one of them?” I could feel my stomach constricting.
“N—well, she wasn’t directly in power, meaning she wasn’t in control of the ways they destroyed the world. But she was married to one. And she never spoke up, never confronted her husband… but she’s not the real villain here.”
I spat out a mouthful of bread onto the table, ignoring Mother’s nauseated glare. The anger embedded under my skin flared and crackled. Mother’s voice rang through my mind, singing The sun’ll come out tomorrow, an old song that used to bring tears to her eyes and now brought fire to mine. “What do you mean, ‘she’s not the real villain here’?” I could feel my hands clenching onto the edge of the table, fragile bones struggling against an unyielding, inhuman surface.
“I mean, she’s not,” Mother continued. “She might’ve done wrong by not doing anything, but I know worse people were out there.”
As if shocked by a loose wire, I jolted to my feet. “Worse people? Let me guess. They’re all dead! So who else is left? Who else is left who’s sent us all to our deaths? It is her fault. She should’ve said something, she should’ve stood up, just like you did! You! And now you’re saying this?”
Mother let out a shaky breath, staring placidly down at the table. “One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that women tend to get blamed for things even when the men have done much more harm.”
I froze, then began to laugh. “So what? What does that have to do with anything? Mother, of all people, I thought you would care! I thought you would want justice! You would want her to know what it’s like to have life stolen from you by people who just don’t care! And she’s the only one left to feel justice!”
All of a sudden, Mother froze completely. The only way I could tell she wasn’t a statue of surrender was the rapid expanding and contracting of her chest. Her eyes were angled away from mine but I could tell she was still looking at me, piercing my skin with her inky pupils. “’Justice’?”
I stared at her. “Yeah, don’t—”
“Do you not understand?” She laughed unamusedly, the sound a hairline crack shattering space and time. “I’m done fighting.” A breath. “There’s absolutely nothing left to do but inhabit existence. To take up space. We tried, and we failed. And now, that’s that.”
I gaped at her. Where was the knight in shining armor plastered with environmentalist slogans in all those photos? Who was the woman in front of me in that moment? Certainly not the person I had just met. No, she had left me much too soon, right after I discovered her. And I didn’t even get a chance to say farewell.
I sat there for the rest of dinner, sampling more water but consciously avoiding the flatbread. I could feel my eyes glazing over, everything on the inside fogging up and slowing down. I wasn’t even sure what my thoughts were up to. They were unintelligible.
I could hear the soft clank of Mother setting down her cup, but I didn’t look up. It’s not that I refused to, although I might’ve on any other occasion, but I just couldn’t. Instead, I felt my arm brush its way across the table, my hand grasping onto the nearest object and hoisting it upwards. I didn’t even acknowledge that I was savagely gnawing off the edges of the rest of the bread left on Mother’s plate until the realization made me choke.
“I wasn’t done eating,” Mother murmured.
“You weren’t done living,” I muttered as I stood up, letting the disgusting, horrible, mutilated slice of bread fall onto the concrete floor beside my bare feet. I just couldn’t live like this anymore. My mouth began to water and I began to crave the metallic tang of justice.
You are as good as dead.
The mask was tangled in my hair, tearing at my scalp, so I paused for a moment to adjust it. I wouldn’t admit to myself where I was going or why there was a kitchen knife in my right hand. All I knew was I wanted something slimy and cold hiding under the bronze banner of justice. As I walked, there was a part of me screaming warnings that bounced off the inside of my thick skull, but if I were to diagram the chopped-off sentences flying around my brain, the only subjects underlined in dull pencil would’ve been ‘yellow season’ and ‘poisoning.’ And ‘you,’ as in ‘You need to run right now.’ Or ‘You are a fool.’ Or ‘You are as good as dead.’
My bare foot slipped and swirled around in a rancid puddle of yellowy-brown water and I had to physically cover my mouth through the mask to keep from hurling up half-digested pieces of that disgusting bread. Yet another reminder of the toxins preparing to feast on my body if I stayed out here too long. The whirling air around me was swimming with dust particles and I felt myself pressing my mask harder onto my face to tighten the seal. Dirt began to embed itself between my toes, mud seeping into my toenails, as I tried so desperately hard to ignore thoughts of which mustard-tinged poisons must have been oozing onto my skin. Just follow the yellow-brick road. The ancient song popped into my head, another one Mother had sung to me when I was a young child. Again, I had to clasp my hand to my mouth through the mask. Follow the yellow-brick road, my mind sung.
Follow the yellow-brick road.
Just follow the yellow-brick
Follow the yellow-brick
I didn’t notice my palm pressing hard into the knife blade, drawing blood.
Follow the yellow-brick road!
I couldn’t get it to stop, so I took my eyes off the decomposing road under my feet up to the evening sun cowering behind a grainy veil of filmy clouds. The hidden, but burning, yellow sun.
Just follow the yellow-brick road!
Dead from the outside in and the inside out.
I pressed my hands to my ears, foolishly trying to block what wasn’t even real sound as I forced my legs to keep marching down the street—if you could call it that. On either side, spread out by several hundred feet, were square metal trapdoors embedded in the earth. Most had curtains of dead tallgrass to hide behind. As my vision swung from side to side, a rotted wooden box on the ground surrounded by rusted chicken wire caught my eye. Ash-grey stalks had shot up out of the putrid dust within it only to go rigid in the noxious air, dead from the outside in and the inside out. Empty husks laid scattered on the ground, their springtime nourishing hearts eaten out long long ago. A garden that had long been abandoned. A portrait of Eden. A mirror held up to my husk-like face.
This was the woman’s house.
I turned around, startled. And there she stood. Barefoot, maskless, draped in dark fabric, dragging her golden blanket behind her through the dust. Mother.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” I blurted out, tucking the kitchen knife behind my back.
“You don’t have to hide that from me, because I know I can’t stop you,” she murmured, her voice carried away almost completely on gusts of sickening wind.
“Mother—” I started, unsure of where my sentence was going, but she didn’t give me a chance to say anything more. Before any sound even escaped her lips, the fierce flare of the golden light catching her eyes knocked all breath out of me.
“I have failed,” she finally said.
“It wasn’t your fault…” I began, suddenly unsure of how I felt, about her, about me, about any of it. “You tried so hard—”
“I am not talking about that.” Her voice swayed, twirling slowly through the air, each syllable overflowing with unripe ambrosia. “I have failed. It was my fault. I did not try hard enough for you.”
“’Mother’…” she murmured before beginning to laugh faintly with eyes of obsidian. “Do you even know my real name?”
“What do you mean… the only thing I need to call you is Mother—”
“It’s Eve.” Her face had solidified completely. My mind grasped for fragments of stories and found a sketch of woman with an apple. Woman dragging man down out of paradise. Somehow woman and not man was wrong. “Eve, as in the woman—”
“Another would say yes, but I am going to say no. Because Eve does not mean ‘woman.’ Eve means ‘life.’ And that is why I have failed you.” The golden blanket flew over her head as she turned around, stepping into a cloud of dust and ash and fairy dust.
“Mother…” my words caught in my throat, blocking any more from coming out. I watched the filthy air cloud around her, carrying her farther and farther away from me, and I didn’t have the sense to chase after her. I didn’t have the sense to latch onto her before she descended the ladder back into her home. I didn’t have the sense to wrap my arms around her and whisper I-forgive-you-I-promise-I-forgive-you-please-I-forgive-you with every last drop of life in my body. I just stood there with my feet in the ash, watching, until the knife slipped out of my hand and I had to bend over to pick it up again, had to be reminded of what I was so sure I had to do. In the name of everyone else in their underground homes not-living.
And when I returned home with the red of the woman’s blood coloring my fingernails, I climbed down the ladder just as she must have done. I set down my knife and mask just as she must have set down her blanket, for I found it covered in mud on the floor. But while there were handprints on the knife and mask, there were footprints on the blanket. Footprints in ash; Mother’s footprints.
I washed my hands in the sink, using the racket of the water falling into the metal basin to cover up anything that must’ve been racing through my mind, though now I doubt there was much inside it at that moment. Like any other day, I pushed down the squeaky faucet handle, reached for the gray kitchen towel, and wiped my hands dry. Right after I noticed that the water had failed to wash all the blood away, I realized something else. The fairytale photograph of Mother and the two other girls sitting in the back of the truck slipped out from the folds of the towel and serenely floated to the floor, face down, without a sound. A feather from a shot bird.
I was reaching down to pick it up when I realized there was golden-yellow marker all over the back of it. I held it up to the faint kitchen lantern, taking in a series of words. Glitter smeared on my thumb and I realized it must’ve been written very, very recently: the marker wasn’t dry.
“Mother?” I called out. There was no response, just an amorphous absence of it, so I looked back down at the writing. Dear Eden…
I finished reading. One final, horrifying time, the photograph fell from my hands. The marker left on my fingertips was even more unbearable than the crimson of the woman’s blood or the champagne of the old blanket or the mustard of the yellow season.
The last thing I remember before I thought the world finally ended, before I finally found her body, was screaming her name. Eve.
The coppery sun, even at its lowest, still manages to pierce through the ashy haze, sending a dim glow bouncing from cloud to cloud. It looks familiar, but when I latch my gaze onto it, I realize that it’s not the yellow or the gold I’d once thought. As a cloud shifts, bright white light floods out my vision, and I have to look away. Once my sight clears, I find my head tilted down towards the deep gray of the crumbling asphalt painted across my exposed toes. Somehow the blaze of the sun must have sizzled away all the everlasting puddles, because even though there are still residual swirls of dirty yellow on the earth, my bare feet are bone dry.
Aboveground is broken, and so are they.
I am the only one at Eve’s funeral this evening. But that is solely because I did not invite anyone else. In the shriveled heart of yellow season, I doubt anyone would have agreed to attend either way. Aboveground is broken, and so are they. So am I, but not quite in the same way.
I do not allow my gaze to shift over to the golden blanket and its content on the ground next to me. At least, not yet. Instead, I gaze once more at the setting sun staring me down. If it were only a painting, only a figment of someone’s imagination, the barren landscape in front of me might be considered beautiful. But today, it’s dusk’s poison. It’s the world at eventide.
My heart is frozen, but not with ice. And so, I slowly reach up, slowly unfasten my mask, slowly watch as it slowly glides to an eternal rest on the cracked dusty road. And I slowly breathe in. Hello, Goodbye rings in my ears, but I remember that this song that Eve sung me was never about the end, and yet at the same time it always was. Even when I was little, the only thing I could picture in my mind’s eye when hearing her sing it was the last few rays of sun flickering out and sliding beneath the earth.
I allow myself one last look at the mask. But I am done with this chance at what fools call life. And so I turn away from it lying there like a peace offering. It is now time for the ceremony.
I carefully position Eve’s body in the middle of the cracked street, and even though all emotions have been locked behind hidden doors inside me, a purely-physical gag reflex sends me vomiting up fairy dust by the side of the road. After a few moments of recovery, I make sure Eve’s golden blanket, still stained with dirt, is draped perfectly over her not as a burial shroud but as a tent in which she can hide in, can pretend in, can live in. Next, I pull the wounded golden-yellow marker out of my pocket and let it fall beside her. I had found it on the kitchen counter, snapped from the strength of her pained grip, bleeding toxins and fairytale glitter. I inhale, close my eyes, but something is missing, so I begin walking down the street, only to stop in front of that woman’s dead garden of Eden.
Once I return, I gently lay the lifeless flower on Eve’s heart. Pieces of the brittle weed disintegrate and float away in the air on contact, but I don’t mind. Instead, I realize that there’s a thorn stuck in my palm, something that has never before happened to me, so I roughly pull it out, letting it fall from my hands to some unknown resting place. The little hole in my hand seems to cry as several drops of blood seep out. One falls onto the dirty blanket and another onto the dead flower. An offering. A burial.
And now the ceremony is over. And the eventide sunset tells me it is time to finally rest. But before I set off in who-knows-what direction, left or right or down or up, to the gates of hell or the illusion of heaven, I direct my gaze from this Eden up to the last few ripples of dusk. The sun is losing its brightness. And as I stare into the heart of yellow season, waiting for it to claim me as its own with icy fingertips, the tears finally come. They wash over the yellow dust scattered on my face from the wind and leave trails of gold.
Someday, in the future, a minute or a month from now, seconds or inches from the dank stone fingers of death, I might realize that Mother’s stories do not make me want to scream, or die, or kill.
Mother’s stories are solely fairytales.
But Eve’s stories are everything.