Siobhan Benet

June 2001


 Mother and Child

 

My mother's coming. I hear the heavy steps cross the scratched wood floors, bear into the creaks, ride the cracks, navigate the planks as she bears down upon me. She is a little woman, but she walks tall and strong, fearless, her anger propelling her through life, her fighting spirit plunging through all darkness.

Three steps away now. I measure her movements, giving myself time to turn in, close off, armor myself against her mercurial moods. I shift in the rocking chair, leaning into it, overtaken by the humid, northeast summer air that threatens to strangle me like the green algae that engulfes the lake behind me. I rock to the chirping of the frogs and chant "breathe," over and over, trying to ignore the mosquitoes that bite me, the wet humidity that coats me, the pitch-blackness of the night.

The steps come closer and stop. I hear her wheezing, feel the tightness of her body, the threat of death. I feel her hot breath on my neck. She is wheezing rhythmically, squeaks arising from her throat with every word. "I can't sleep," she says. "My asthma's so bad tonight. What are you doing out here in the dark?" I feel her hand stroke my head. She is feeling loving towards me tonight. I am asthmatic, like her. This is one of the few things that we share.

Mother sits at my feet, on the sloping steps of the sagging front porch. "Your father," she says. "Your father is driving me crazy. I'm going to leave him one of these days." My body tenses further and my lungs feel as if they will collapsed. There is no air in them. My father is not my father. He is my stepfather. I have lost my father. The phantom Black man. The shadow that I will never know. The spade who got away. I am her shame. The dark blotch on my mother's Irish name.

She wants to leave us. In my mind's eye I can picture my half-sister and myself as we lean out the of our bedroom window, watching her start the car, watching the old Chevy as it chugs up the dirt road, the gravel crunching under its balding tires. It's always night when she does this. We are very young and just happy that the fighting has stopped, the banging has subsided, that we can go to sleep, comforted by the father, who is now quiet and contrite and gentle after the beat down. But Mother will return soon. She is a trapped animal in a cage whose key she will never use.

Mother's tiny body heaves with the pain of breathing. We are like two dying soldiers, waiting for the inevitable, holding onto the pain, hopeful that it will continue so that we will know that we're still alive. The air lowers and hovers, the moisture dripping down our throats, the trees depositing beads of sweat onto our bodies, coating us with moisture, a suffocating cocoon.

I am curled in the rocking chair now, my body absorbed in trying to breathe, trying to suck in little bits of air, conserving each inhalation, my body constricted like a dying snake. I know that the medication will work soon. I will wake up to a clear, sunny day, curled in the chair. I will forget this night. My mother will be a distant figure again. She will not sit with me, she will not love me. This will be our only together time.

By night we are mother and daughter, equal in the shadows, of the same blood, the same breath. She will hold me and when she's breathing better will tell me that she has always loved me. "You know I love you the best," she says.

I've learned not to believe her, learned to harden myself against this love, which is so quickly snatched away, leaving me free falling, heartbroken, impaled. But I will whisper the words, shaking, the tears in my eyes protected by black night. "I love you, too." I know she wants to hear this. I know how little love there is in her life and I blame myself for this.

We sit together on the steps, now, and I lean into her slender body, burying my sweaty curls into her sunken chest. We are two against the world, this night. The only sounds are the frogs, the only light the fireflies creating multicolored magic, a carnival of color in the predawn light. The fairies are out, she says. Mother believes in magic. She tells us stories of brownies and ghosts and whispers that she herself is a witch. Sometimes at night, as I lay in my four-poster bed looking at the branches of the tree dance outside my window, I see her flying toward the bright moon through the navy night, off to convene with her coven. She flies free in the sky; her spirit soaring somewhere that I cannot go.

I know that I am only mortal and less so because I am sullied, not pure and clean and white. My mother is dark haired and olive skinned, our skin color almost the same. I do not understand why we are different from each other. I do know that we both like the night. We hide away in it, we are free here, and it does not frighten us. As she rocks me to sleep, the early morning birds beginning to chirp, I feel her begin to pull away. The air is clearing, the shadows become real. My body is lighter but she now sits rigid. I watch her face harden, her mind racing with the reality of daylight.

"I'm going to leave him. He can raise you girls. You don't love me, anyway." Her arm recoils. She looks at me, remembering that I am the main cause of her shame. "Go and comb your hair. Do you look like that because you hate me?" I try to smooth down the auburn frizz that surrounds my head like an unruly halo. I stand up, woozy with the night and the pills I have taken to ward off the attack. My sturdy little legs are cemented to my shorts, my thighs damp with moisture. "Are you getting fat? I never thought I would have a fat daughter," she muses. She crosses a slender leg, stroking it, feeling our differences as the pink light blazes across the sky. "Oh, Aine," she says, remorseful. "Go inside and get some sleep."

I creep to the rusty screen door, trying to remain invisible, soundless, hoping she won't turn around and pounce. But her back is to me. Her body heaves and I know that she is crying as she leans against the porch banister. I want to run to her and hold her, but she will reject me and hold my transgression against me. She is fearless in the day. She bullies with anger and threats and tears. My sister and I tiptoe around her, shielding ourselves from the broken warrioress, hell bent on our destruction.

Inside, the house in shambles. There is dried coffee on the walls, the dining room table upturned, last night's dinner splashed across the badly polished floor. Upstairs the father sleeps and my half-sister huddles against him, believing that he is her savior. I creep into the kitchen and grab the mop and broom from the closet. On the back porch, a blue jay crows, searching for bits of food in the feeder, it's blue and white body framed by the morning sunlight. The lake splashes gently to the shore. The partially uprooted tree that watches over the lake rocks gently to the breeze. I sway with exhaustion but I know what has to be done. I pick up the worn broom and retreat to the living room. I am mother's helper. I will sweep and clean. Maybe, this time, in the light of day, she will love me.

Siobhan Benet is a correspondent for Women's Enews and a regular contributor to BET.com. She has also written for VIBE, Unfold, Panache, People, Borderlines, Barcelona Review, and Pride (UK magazine for Black women). She has a BA from SUNY Albany and an MA from Yale. She lives in New York City.

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