My mother is shrinking away. She is dying. I cry until I drift into the calm waters of sleep. Waves lick my toes and I watch children build a sandcastle on the beach, seagulls fill the sky—but my eyes zip back to the beach. I recognize the towel, the dead minnows piling along Lac Pelletier’s shore. I flail against this distorted memory-dream that has haunted me since my mother’s cancer returned this Christmas. Kick until I escape the tangle of my sheets and force my eyes open.
My phone lights up the dark with a message from my godmother: I’m here if you ever need to talk.
My hands shake as I respond, I’ve never been very good at talking. At least not about what scares me, like losing my mother. I hadn’t considered that our visit on Mother’s Day might be the last, but tonight I learn that things have taken a turn for the worse.
My godmother types: Your mom isn’t either. Whenever I tried to talk about giving up C, she’d just cry and shake. My aunt became my godmother months after she’d given up her own newborn. She understands the weight of loss, and we’re both losing my mom. I wish I could talk to her, but when I open my mouth, I’m a fish drowning in air. When I set my fingertips to the keypad, my thoughts sink below the surface.
When the lights went out in the haunted house, I wasn’t afraid because Maman was beside me. I prattled on in French, reached up for her hand, but the one that grasped mine was too large, too rough. Inside my chest, a kitty-cat clawed and mewed. Maman’s soft singsong had been replaced by a man’s rumbling voice that tumbled onto me. I could not understand his words. My voice and breath were trapped inside my throat. The hand that was not Maman’s pulled me towards a flashing red light. Un fantôme flew past, but I could not remember how to scream. Then, we were outside. Maman swooped me up in her soft arms, and my voice swam free—Maman! I clung to her as she brushed away my tears.
Mom’s raspy inhalations—she could hardly breathe the last time I visited—cling to my thoughts. In my sleep tonight, I am seven years old again. My siblings sift sand, and Maman sunbathes on a bright beach towel. I wade through the dead minnows that wash up along Lac Pelletier’s shoreline. The silver bodies drag me further and further from the shallows until I am too far out and surrounded by death. Air hardly squeaks into my lungs, and I sink and sink and sink below the surface of the lake and into my childhood bedroom where the babysitter holds me down on the blue shag bedspread. When I open my mouth to scream, dead minnows spill out. I choke on decaying fish. Cough and sputter until I bob up to the surface of Lac Pelletier. Maman does not notice that I have drifted further and further out because she has turned her back to me.
A few years ago, my cousin passed away. She was a beautiful soul, my age, the mother of four school-aged children. I still can’t think of her death without water rising and rising in my mind, threatening to drown me.
My brother stopped in on his way to her funeral. I sobbed at my dining room table, my legs shook uncontrollably, and I explained that I couldn’t attend. That night, in my sleep I returned to my childhood bedroom. It was dark, but I sensed something was out of place. The silver brush and mirror set were arranged on the tall bureau next to my jewelry box with the wind-up ballerina, my clothes were neatly folded on the dresser. My heart flopped into my stomach when I saw little-girl-me huddled and sobbing beneath the fuzzy blue bedspread. I could hear Maman weeping while I searched for words to explain what the babysitter had done. Papa raised his hand and yelled that I was lying. I shrank and shrank until I was a shimmering minnow suspended in blue—sinking and resurfacing, sinking, resurfacing—unable to give in to a final pull in either direction.
As a child, I was pulled by the rumble of the highway beyond the wheat field. One day, I packed a plastic Woolworth’s bag with the things I could not bear to leave behind—my pencils, notebooks, Nancy Drews, and the silver brush and mirror set from my bureau. As I tiptoed towards the front door, I paused to watch Maman—her hands immersed in sudsy water, a trail of sweat snaking down her spine. I made a wish to resurface in another girl’s life—one whose parents loved her and stopped bad things from happening. Whose parents believed her when she told the truth.
With each step I took through waist-high wheat, my heart grew heavier. The sun melted my dark hair. Too-dry air scraped down my throat. As I approached the ditch, my heart flapped like the chickens Papa carried upside down to the butcher block before thwack! blood gushed from where their heads had been. The wind sucked away my breath. If he were to catch me here—roots tangled around my feet, but I ripped myself free. Ran all the way home.
From the doorway, I watched Maman. I willed her to swoop me up, to wipe away my tears. Instead, she placed more loaves of bread into the oven and asked me to check my baby brother’s diaper. She hadn’t noticed the silver brush and mirror were missing. Perhaps I’d only dreamed of leaving.
Mom has called me home.
I do not want to see her shrunken form in her hospice bed, but I am petrified she’ll disappear before I find the words for the pain that has been lurking beneath the surface for decades. This is my last chance to lull the ghost girls who haunt my sleep—the mute girl from the haunted house, the one cocooned in the blue shag bedspread, the invisible one whose absences went unnoticed again and again. These haunted girls have turned me into a woman who runs and runs but can never escape. A woman who fiercely defends everyone but herself.
I must expel the hurt that has shored up over the years, so I race towards Mom. I know it’s unlikely, but I hope she’ll wrap me up in her arms and refuse to let go until I cough up the last of the minnows lodged in my throat, and that she’ll listen when I manage to speak.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. Find her recent prose in Lunch Ticket, Longridge Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal and other fine journals. In 2022, Rachel’s CNF was a finalist for the Barnhill Prize and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com or find her on Twitter at @r_laverdiere.