Felicia C. Sullivan
The mother in the water
The mother dreams in type, never image, and one day she wakes, in terror, and traces on her arm the word leave. Back then she was floss thin, careless, her face forever the color of day-old shame. Like dark matter she moves, dangerous, unnoticed, but somehow leaving marks and puncturing cell walls. She interrupts without the room’s consent. Office work confuses her. She would stand in front of the photocopier and press the Start button—all to watch light glare back and forth, and the dark sheets of paper, that took notice of her eyes, sputtering out. The days repeat themselves with minor variations.
Quit your job, her husband orders. Everyone in the office assumes the mother is leaving due to pursuits related to mothering, even though the mother doesn’t technically have a child. On the mother’s last day her coworkers order cupcakes and give her a card where everyone misspells her name. The mother places the card and the cupcake on the copier, lays her cheek on the glass, and feels the warm embrace of a light resembling a camera shutter going dark. After, she tears the paper into pieces and swallows the parts because there are still places in her body where her husband can’t go.
That night the husband winds a sheet around her neck and covers her face with a pillow. She’s grown used to the taste of fabric and suffocation, the sticky sweat of her husband’s body on top of hers. This is your job, he says, charging inside of her, wrecking things. Didn’t he know she was ruined long before he got there? Or maybe that’s what he loved about her—if indeed what he felt could be construed as love—the fact that she was land once trespassed and colonized, and now the terrain of her, weeded and uninhabited. Let’s get to work, he says. Her job is to manufacture her replacement.
Her husband arranges patient files in an insane asylum. They give him a blue uniform because plain clothes have become problematic. Pockets ignite rampages. Florals make patients lethal. Typography on t-shirts delivers false hope. We’re trying to avoid a disturbance, his supervisor says. Calm is the hospital’s calling card. During smoke breaks the husband peels bits of wallpaper off the wall and shoves them down his pants. Come evening, he reneacts the cases he filed that day, taping bits of the hospital wallpaper, glass-winged faeries, to the sides of the mother’s face and on the corners of her mouth. A man requires entertainment, circus-type diversions.
If given the choice, she prefers pillow fibers, smothering, over images of women in flight.
The mother had a family once. Five hundred people in a compound in West Virginia preparing for the rapture. The men wore blue pants and were instructed to keep their women clean. When the mother turned twelve, she was pushed into a dark bathroom where Father proposed on one knee. She had been chosen; she would be doing God’s work—she should be lucky to be so loved, said this man who was not her father, but was. Are you ready for your duty? The mother had been prepared and whispered, yes, of course, and Father rubbed his palms together like kindling. He ripped the buttons off her dress, pushed her face into the toilet and thrashed behind her. Does this feel good, he whispered. Amen, she choked out.
The mother prayed (prays) harder than ever. Even though her family is gone, vanished deeper into the forest, she still believes. Even after they buried her daughter while she slept, she still believes. Even though she heard, years later, that her brother was found in a ditch with his neck sawed off, she still believes. Even when the cut across his neck resembled a mouth and the mouth was buried in a barrel, she still believes.
Tonight husband and wife play House, and in House there are corned beef and cabbage and apple cakes. House is bleaching blood-stained sheets and braiding ribbons into the mother’s long hair. She wears ankle socks adorned with pink lace. House is a game where the mother counts days between her last blood and her next, and if she loses count, it’s a girl and it would be named this or that. The husband requests there be no boys. I know doctors who can fix that up, he says. We just need to be quick about it. Before it forms a face. Before its heart forms. Before it beats.
Into the woods she goes
Run, the brother said. He pushed her small body under the barbed wire leading out to the road. His body was a column of hurt; the mother could see the places on his shirt where the wounds opened up and had begun to bleed. She was aware of the smallness of her feet and how much weight she forced on them. Here’s the money, he said. Run and don’t look back. Don’t come back. Get in the first car that stops. Put the cap on, pull it over your face. Duck your head as they drive. Tell the driver to go fast, jam your foot on the gas if you have to. Let the driver know they’re after you. The mother looked back, and the barbed wire that divided the air between brother and sister might as well have been another country. Come with me, the mother mouthed back, but she was shrouded in darkness. It was so dark she couldn’t tell if the day was starting or ending. The mother saw Father’s men grab her brother by his legs. She saw his face and teeth scraping the dirt. But there was a car coming. She ran out of the darkness and waved her hands. The man stopped and she pulled up her dress and said, this is what I’ll give if you drive. The man was on his way to work at the dairy and he said, keep your clothes on and get in. You’re a kid, he said, ashamed. The mother didn’t understand. Didn’t all men desire teenaged girls?
Before she left, the mother’s cousin said, didn’t you know. Didn’t you know this was going to happen? The cousin said, as the mother’s bastard child was being laid into an open grave. This was what happened when you shared someone else other than Father’s bed. How did you expect that it would be anything other than what it was?
Later, the mother stood in front of a full-length mirror in a motel in West Virginia. She pulled up her dress and stared at her bare legs and what was between them. She was fifteen and this was the first time she’d seen what men had wanted, what they would always feel entitled to take.
The husband tells the mother that he was born and left for dead in a Holiday Inn. His mother was a schizophrenic prostitute named Shirley, who was once a patient at the asylum where he now works. Don’t give me those sympathy tears, he says. Knowing this toughens you and makes you see the world for what it is. You were in summer camp compared to what I went through. At least you had a place to lay down your head, to sleep. And so what if you had to sit on some old man’s lap? We all make our concessions; we do what needs to be done. If I wanted a piece of candy from the vending machine I had to scrub some old woman’s bathroom and massage her feet. You were coddled while I was beaten with other children’s toys. My foster sister dolled me up like some fairy, but it was better than the Home, where the boys made you feel like a woman in ways girls couldn’t. How many toys and dresses did you have, princess? Did your father make you wear pants?
I want to play a game, the husband says. You play the scary mommy while I get even.
When the husband is at work, the mother walks to the water and imagines drifting in. She wears long shirts to cover the bruises and shoes that pinch her feet. Men in pick-up trucks honk their horns and offer a ride, but the mother flashes her ring to signify that she’s another man’s property. They move on. How many days has it been since her last blood? She can’t remember. The mother thinks about the photocopy machine, cupcake, and farewell card, and wonders if they’re still inside her, if she can go in and grab them and remember what she temporarily had and forever lost? On her last day she learned how to access her voice mail—it was full! It felt good to be needed, even if it was for a little while. Everyone in the office liked her. The card told her so.
Stay clean for Father.
When the mother married Father, she lost the right to her name and was referred to as #60. Before bed, the wives lined up in numerical order to kiss their husband goodnight. When #60 was lucky or when Father was tired, she delivered her kiss and was dismissed to her room. On the nights when she was not so lucky, she followed the procession of somnambulants, dressed in floor-length white nightgowns, to Father’s bedroom. With pride they wore their name patches sewn into their gowns. Hours later #60 fell asleep with a wad of fabric in her mouth. She did this to choke down tears, to prevent her from crying out in her sleep. When she woke, the other wives spent the day instructing her on all the ways in which she could improve during the heavenly sessions. #82 laughed and said, once you’re with child he’ll stop caring about you. Already we can see you’ve lost some of your sheen. #5 said: I heard her mother lied. She’s not even bleeding yet.
When the mother’s daughter is four, they have a visitor. The visitor comes during the day when the husband’s at work. She wears plain clothes but they’re white and she comes bearing a message. We’re concerned for your daughter. That man will taint her. Come back. Father has forgiven you. You were young, under the influence of that apostate. That apostate was my brother, the mother says. We’ll baptize her, the visitor says, wiping dust off the counters and chairs. But if you keep her here she’ll be soiled and we can’t guarantee her safety. She won’t be clean for judgment. The mother’s face is a river when she asks, how did you find me? Oh child, you’ve never been lost. This was Father’s gift to you—now you know about the Outside. I’m done with that life, the mother says, holding the little girl close. The visitor curls the daughter’s white hair under her finger, stares into the daughter’s glass eyes and says: she’s the image of you. I remember when you were small, #60. We have great plans for you and your girl. Come home to us.
The mother seethed. That man is not God. He’s a liar and a monster. All of you are.
We all have our roles, #60. We play our parts. And is living here, with that beast of a man—and I dare say you scraped the bottom of the barrel with that one—who beats you and will, one day, have his way with your daughter, any better than living at home? Your family can protect you. Think about it, #60. We’ll be in touch.
When the visitor leaves, the mother makes the daughter promise (cross your heart) that the husband will never know. Who is she? Who’s that woman?
That woman is my mother.
Father had a revelation, #60. It’s become clear to him that you’re part of our salvation. There’ll be no more children. Only you can continue the line. You must be strong for this work. You must lay with the Prophet. Every year you will bear a child. But we must act quickly because when the end comes, and the gentiles have been wiped clean, we will need our line to start anew. Because of you there will be no more sin.
#60, The Savior
#60 was 13. The next day, #5 and #82 were strung up from a tree. A burlap sack covered their faces. Everyone laughed while the women’s feet fenced air. Most of the ninety wives were sent to other houses to lay celibate with men. Many of them remained and served Father and #60.
The mother spent the next two years in bed, breeding.
They were never supposed to take joy in their work, and this was partially true because the mother only remembered painful objects being inserted and removed with a force that felt like a reckoning. Why did everything always hurt? She would be sick. She would kill the women who pinned her down and held her legs apart. She would impale the men who hung their heads, ardent in their devotion. In the rare moments when she was permitted to see Father’s face, she didn’t see pain, only pleasure. She was being excavated, hollowed out, while he was being satisfied, amused.
When she was allowed to walk, she was carried. She was fourteen and the mother of two with another on the way. For a few moments each day she was permitted to stand barefoot in the grass, to curl her toes in the wet clay beneath. Wives surrounded her when they rolled up the white pants beneath her dress to reveal her bare ankles that had grown tough and scabbed. The mother was allowed ten minutes of this pleasure before she was carried back into the house, feet scrubbed and dried, socks applied, and tucked back into bed with the bible Father left for her to read. This would be the sum total of her life—a milk-white child gasping for daylight, for air, only to be shuttered into the darkness, insides harvested.
No one ever thought to ask the mother if she wanted to bear the burden of everyone’s salvation. After two years she forgot her birth name.
The mother on the run
After the mother escaped she was desperate to see her legs. She learned of the existence of an article of clothing called “shorts”, and wore a pair she found at Goodwill for 42 days straight. The world was an assault with people wearing non-white clothes and women allowed to walk the streets unescorted. Brief trips to the grocery store created an exhaustion that would make her bedridden for days where she would stare at a metal box that projected moving pictures. The mother screamed when she first saw it, and cowered in the closet. Had Father been right? Was the box Satan? The foster mother crawled on the floor next to the mother and explained that the box was called a television. Satan isn’t coming for you, the foster mother said, smoothing her hair. He’s not in the television. In hushed voices the foster mother and father lamented over all the things that were considered normal, yet terrified the young girl of fifteen. The girl had never seen a book other than the Bible. The girl took a hammer to the telephone when it rang. The girl believed that Satan would rise up through the sink with all that angry gurgling. That’s a garbage disposal. The foster mother and father had to give the mother a name because when the social worker asked what she was called, the mother only said, I am #60.
The social worker said, pick a name, any name. #60 didn’t know of one. She only knew of women as numbers. Instead she gave them men’s names, called out the men she knew, one after another into the hundreds, until the social worker folded the mother’s hands in hers and said, why don’t we call you Sheila.
That night the foster mother and father gave Sheila a book. The cover was the blue of the men’s pants in the Family, and there was a girl with wheat hair and glass wings. The foster mother slept with her that night. Read to her from a book about fairies.
It takes years to forget Father’s voice, although the mother can sometimes hear it. When she’s burrowed under the covers with her arms wrapped around her husband’s waist, she could feel Father’s forearm like a crowbar on the back of her neck. She could feel his salty breath where her hair curled in the back from all his sweat. Lately, she’s confused. Everyone looks like Father. Her husband, the man who hurt her but kept her safe from other men, started to take on the tired tone Father used. At night her husband left her alone and instead played house in her daughter’s bed.
The daughter has replaced the mother but where do they go? In the husband’s world they are abundant, but outside they have nothing. The husband married her out of a foster home and he is the circumference of her world.
The husband doesn’t call her Sheila anymore. He refers to her as woman. As in, woman, get my food. Woman, don’t come in here. As in, woman, didn’t I tell you not to come in here when I’m with my daughter?
When the mother tries to steal the daughter away, after she makes a break for the water and is delivered back to her husband, return to sender, the visitor comes again.
We don’t have many options, #60. We can’t take her, your child. She’s unclean. The visitor says: this is what you can do to save her. Save us. The mother nods her head and says did you ever miss me? Not the woman belonging to the Prophet, to Father, but me. Have you missed me? Are you sorry? Do you hurt? Does your heart suddenly stop and start when you think of my brother’s head buried in a barrel? Those girls hung from a tree? Do you feel—?
I haven’t given it thought, the visitor says. We don’t have time for this, #60. Meet me by the water, tomorrow. We will arrange the rest. You will be safe with us.
The mother pulls the daughter into a closet and tells her she’s taking a trip. I’ll be back for you, she says. The daughter says what if it’s not like last time. What if it won’t so easy to come back? The mother cries and holds her daughter close and says, I’m #60. I’ve been chosen. I’ll set this whole thing free. Then I’ll come for you and we’ll run.
And Father and your father will never find us.
All images purchased from Stocksy.com
Felicia C. Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here (Algonquin/Harper Collins) and the forthcoming novel, Follow Me Into the Dark (The Feminist Press, 2017). She muses on all things food and feline at lovelifeeat.com, and lives in Los Angeles.