by Alexis M. Smith
When I was in college, I lived in a tiny apartment in the northwest part of town, near the trendy shops and restaurants. One night I woke up suddenly from a dream, full of dread. My bedroom window looked out onto a narrow, bricked courtyard where a single lamp post shined. For a while, I watched the door, where the shadows of two small japonicas, not quite in bloom, met in a troubling embrace.
It’s like the one can’t decide whether or not to strangle the other, I thought.
Issue #103 soundtrack: Numbers And Letters "Wading"
I had never been able to cope with the early hours after midnight. That had always been the time to fret, listening to the anxious, immutable voices in my head. Other versions of myself took over, and if I laid awake too long they’d tell me dark stories about my past and my future that would eat away at me for days. I couldn’t remember the nightmare—if that’s what it was—but I couldn’t shake the feeling of it: like watching a storm approach across the sky, feeling the wind change direction. I didn’t want to sink back into that dream, to take root there. And I didn’t want to listen to the voices, spinning yarns from my fears. I opened my eyes again and watched the shadow branches on the door and thought how the japonicas wanted for sun in the courtyard, how they had never been pruned properly, how the vagrant, spindly limbs, had been left to jab at the sky.
I pushed back the covers and rose, searching the floor for my slippers. It was cold, and seemed colder in the dark (the radiators guzzled and burped all night, so I cranked them down). I wrapped myself in a blanket.
Twelve steps through the railroad flat and I was in the kitchen. Street lamps lit the room and my hand hovered over the light switch. I couldn’t decide. There would be the tremendous shock to the senses when the light flooded the place, and then all the murkiness of everything at that hour, lit by the fluorescence.
I didn’t turn on the light. The old refrigerator whimpered and sighed like a dreaming dog.
I filled a glass by streetlight and turned to the window, to the narrow avenue crowded with apartments, the silvery glow on the trees and trash-tucked weeds, the grainy peel of night over the buildings and cars.
As I raised the glass to my lips, there was a jarring knock on an apartment door just down the hall. Three knocks, actually. Firm. I sputtered.
Another human being, awake at that hour and steps away. I felt a jolt from some inner chamber of my heart, where I knew there was no safety in a knock on a door at that hour. A drop of water slid down my chin.
I set my glass on the counter and listened. Two breaths, three more knocks. It was the apartment across the hall and one down, occupied by another girl in her twenties, a hairdresser, who spent nights at her boyfriend’s. Who would knock on her door at three in the morning? Then it occurred to me: how did the visitor get into the secured building? I hadn’t heard the clatter of the entry, echoing up the stairwell; I hadn’t heard the buzz of the door lock releasing. Was it another tenant? How did I not hear them come down the stairs, adjacent to my own door and constantly creaking with the arthritis of old buildings?
Three more knocks, louder and sharper than the last, becoming impatient. I decided then that the hand must be small, the knuckles narrow peaks. The ball-peen hammer of a woman’s fist.
I gathered the blanket around my shoulders and shuffled like a beggar hag across the living room to the door. I heard the rustle of cloth, and imagined her arm dropping to her side, and her standing there, deciding what to do. I tried to imagine how tall she was, her figure, the shape of her face, her hair color—anything to convince myself that there was nothing to worry about, but all I could venture was a spring jacket, something light and long—brushing the knees—like a trench coat, or what my mother would call a Mackintosh. Then came her footsteps and that same rustle of cloth toward my door. I flattened myself to it and held my breath. I wondered which way the footsteps would go: up to the second floor, or down the short flight to the entry. I would know, then, where she came from, where she was going. The feet fell consistently, firmly on the floorboards, until they reached my door. I reached defensively for the knob, and there was the slightest rattle when the weight of my hand fell on it. Abrupt silence followed. She had stopped. We were both listening.
Who are you afraid of? You are supposed to be here, I told myself. Who is this woman, stalking the halls of your building in the wee hours?
I pressed my ear to the door. The familiar creak of the stairs--up or down--never came. The door below did not clatter open or slam behind her. Though I thought I heard, once again, briefly, the airy movement of the Mackintosh (which by then I imagined was pale blue and dirty around the wrists, exactly like the one my mother owned). But then my own blood pumping and my unsteady breath were all I could hear. I felt a pulse in my cheek, as if she were there on the other side, pressing her cheek to the wood that met mine.
I strained to hear her in the quiet for many minutes. Nothing. She must still be out there, I thought. No one could move so quietly in this building where we all knew when someone showered or cooked fish. Had she pulled off her shoes and crept silently to another floor? Was she waiting for me to look? Was she waiting for me to open the door? When I finally lifted my head to peer through the peephole, my breath snagged in my throat: the hall was empty.
I told my mother about the incident, some days later. I had been waking around three o’clock every morning since, imagining I heard the knocking again, but on my own door. It rattled me from dreams, and left a ringing in my head, but when I tip-toed to the door, it always rested quiet and cold in its frame, the air in the hallway undisturbed. After a few days of this, I wasn’t frightened. But in my normal waking hours I began to feel wildly lonely whenever I crossed the threshold of my apartment. I was sleep deprived and forlorn. After the long bus ride out to my mother’s apartment in the suburbs, I was chattier than usual. I told her everything. I even told her about the Mackintosh.
“It was so strange,” I said, nervous, “I imagined the girl wearing that old blue Mackintosh of yours--remember?—the one you bought in Scotland?”
She still had the coat, I was sure. I had seen it in the back of her closet as recently as my high school graduation; she held onto everything that ever meant something to her. She bought the coat when she was my age, and had worn it all through my childhood, until her middle-aged body rejected it. She had been a celebrated scholar (she reminded me often) of archeology; she had unearthed a bog baby on the moors. Her very own bog baby, laid to rest centuries before and mummified in the peat; she was the envy of all the other scholars. It was rare to find a bog person at all, let alone a baby. When I was young she would tell the story of my birth in tandem with the story of the dig on the heath, the moment of her great discovery. She recalled the musk of leather and shit, and I never knew whether she was talking about me or the bog baby.
We were sitting across from each other at her kitchen table. It was the same round pinewood table where I had eaten cereal every morning before school and condensed soup casseroles after homework. I watched her for a reaction, but my mother’s face always bore the same placidly disappointed look, as if the earth had offered up its final treasure to her years ago. “Where is my bog baby now?” this look of hers asked.
She cocked her head.
“I didn’t sleep at all after that,” I finished, leaning back in my chair.
“Well,” she said, drawing out the l, and started picking dead leaves from the spider plants next to the window, all sprouting even more spider plants that she would eventually repot. There were spider plants in every window of the house, their grassy, variegated legs dangling over every surface, even the frosted tissue box of a window in the shower, where the shaggy creatures hoarded shampoo bottles. “Louise Bourgeois was an insomniac and she sure got a lot done,” she finished, and stood to wash her coffee cup in the sink.
“I’m not an insomniac,” I said, crushing a dried spindle of leaf to dust between my palms.
“Some people don’t need sleep,” she shrugged. She moved the sponge around the inside of the cup and stared through the houseplants in kitchen window, out over the trimmed lawn of the complex and beyond, to the property line where the wilderness scratched away at the landscaping. The hot water ran over her hands for too long, steam rising from the faucet. She never blinked. I assumed in moments like those she was thinking about her bog baby.
I felt gratified that I had brought on this spell by invoking the Mackintosh, then regretted it the next instant.
My mother worked with the elderly. Her clients were all childless widows and spinsters with no one to look in on them. Women she fondly referred to as “the Aunties.” And some of them did believe she was a lost niece. Or daughter. Some of them, wedged in the deeper wrinkles of senility, talked to her as if she were a younger version of themselves. “Do you remember when we took Sylvie to that coat hanger nurse in Tijauna?” one asked. Another hollered “Why didn’t you marry Fred, goddammit?” every visit for two years. Retrospect goggles, my mom called it: the way the aged see through time and space to all the lives they should have lived.
She visited a different Auntie five, sometimes six, days a week, including holidays. I was usually in tow on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and even Valentine’s Day. I learned how to hide my terror. Biologically, they were human, but to my new eyes, they were the stuff of fairy tales. When they offered candy, I pocketed it and slipped it into the ashtray in the back seat of the car later. When they took my hand and smiled lovingly at my rosy, virginal face, I tried to love them back, if only so they wouldn’t want to eat me alive.
Occasionally my mother would arrive after a few days to find one of the Aunties dead, gone sour and sunken like old fruit. You always call the ambulance, no matter how obvious the expiration, and my mother said this was a damn shame. She wanted to dress them in nice things, from the backs of their closets, and put on their good shoes, like they were going out for their last, best game of bingo. She had a legal document, signed and notarized, that expressly demanded that I do as much with her fresh corpse. When I had asked her what I should dress her in she had said, “Oh, I won’t care; I’ll be long gone.”
I watched her at the sink, wondering if I should dress her in the Mackintosh when the time came, for her last long walk on the moors.
She roused herself and put the cup in the drainer, turned off the water and wiped her hands on a towel. She picked a jam jar from the window sill and set it on the table in front of me. An adolescent spider plant bobbed in murky water.
“You should take a plant,” she said, “I can’t bring myself to kill the babies.”
“They’re not babies, Mom. It’s asexual reproduction. They’re clones. The same plant, over and over again.”
My mother looked at me pityingly and shook her head.
She left the room, hunting tennis shoes for our walk around the manmade lagoon, where the Canada geese were nesting again. I eyed the jar in front of me. Green slivers sprung from the lip. A skein of pale roots netted the glass, seeking a dark place.
I graduated from art school that summer. The economy was a mess, so I took the first job the temp agency offered me, at the American Biscuit Company. My alarm would go off at 2:30 in the morning, five days a week. I took a quick shower, put in my ear buds and rode my bike north to the peninsula at the delta of the city’s two rivers. Factories, steel fabricators, and petroleum depots, hemmed the houses and schools and parks within. Viewed from above the peninsula looked like a singed, quilted oven mitt. American Biscuit was the biggest bakery in the city, baking off and packaging popular national brands like Etiquette Crackers and Counter Top Cupcakes. On dry days, when the winds blew from the northwest, neighborhoods four miles away smelled like muffins. I started on the packaging line, making decent money for temp work. Two years later I was first shift supervisor of the Oven.
I never hated it, despite my mother’s increasing disappointment and the bafflement of my friends. My friends tended bar and waited tables and worked at record stores. Those were acceptable jobs for Bachelors of Arts—or even Masters of Arts. Their tattoos and dyed hair were their uniforms. I wore a papery white coat and booties; I came home dusted with a fine, sweet powder. I belonged in a nursery rhyme.
“You should see the cupcakes,” I told them, “all lined up in the packaging line every day like a Damien Hirst. Chocolate, strawberry, yellow; chocolate, strawberry, yellow.”
“‘Yellow’ isn’t a flavor,” someone would say.
“‘Yellow’ is a flavor,” I would say. “It’s Flavor 79-A2. I’m not supposed to know, but it’s mostly vanillin and limonene.”
“You smell like marshmallows,” someone else would say.
The aroma never left my hair or my skin, no matter what kind of soap I used.
“Strangers sit close to me on the bus a lot,” I would tell them, “I don’t think they even realize why they want to sit next to me.”
What I didn’t say to them: that sweetness was armor; within it, I felt safe in the sense-memories of everyone I met. Who would hurt a lady who smelled like grandma’s aproned lap?
My mother told me I would be an artist when I was very small. It was a feminist fantasy, planted in her mossy head the day she realized her cycle had stopped, and there were clusters of cells becoming human-shaped inside her. Merle Boleyn, the surrealist painter and writer, was a visiting lecturer at the University that year, and she wanted to see “the fen girl” my mother’s discovery. After three quarters of an hour staring at the tanned, dehydrated babe from all sides, her long silver hair draped around her, Boleyn turned to my mother with tears in her eyes. “A leanbh mo chroí,” she whispered, child of my heart, “every womb is a wormhole.”
She was seventy-seven, and my mother was twenty-one. They never met again, but my mother felt a tug inside—buried between the heart and the navel—a drawing outward, whenever she thought of the what Boleyn said to her. She had visited the Oracle, or the Oracle had visited her. My mother sought out Boleyn’s work and examined it. Boleyn wrote a treatise on reincarnation. She recited poems in dead languages to blindfolded audiences. She painted portraits of herself through the centuries, in historic dress, being tortured, beheaded, and burnt at the stake, then birthed again by later iterations of herself. My mother the scholar would soon give birth to me, and in doing so, she would become another version of herself. And I would slip through the wormhole into this world from god knows where. From the darkness. From the bog.
As for the facts of my conception, my mother treated them as if they were the natural outcome of a liberated young woman traveling abroad in the 1970’s. When I was old enough to know better, I still had cloudy notions that most of my generation had arrived this way, via legions of backpack-clad young women who set off in their junior year, braless, freckled arms akimbo, bandanas waving out of patched denim pockets like the sepals of flowers.
It was the story of Merle Boleyn I knew by heart, as if she had brought about my existence, like a witch in a moonlit garden with whom my mother had struck a bargain.
“But where will you paint?” my mother would fret, standing in one of my efficiency kitchens, in one of my quaint dioramas of a bedroom. “How are you going to make anything when you sleep all day?” she asked when I started working first shift. There was exasperation in her voice, and fear, as if, after all, the bargain would not be kept.
The first night of Passover, four years after I started work at the ABC, I was biking home from a Seder and my mother called. I stopped at the curb near a Catholic church to answer. One of the Aunties had died the previous month, and she had gone to help her real nieces clean out the house. She did all the unpleasant jobs: the old panty sorting, and the garbage can scrubbing, and the hauling to the thrift store. While the middle-aged nieces from California had pecked and squawked at each other like gulls over the few precious tidbits. That night my mother had stayed late to clean in silence while the nieces went out for wine.
“I found something,” she told me, an echo of the young archeologist in her voice. “Where are you? Come over.”
When I rolled up to the little saltbox, it was familiar to me, though I had never met this particular Auntie. Small and tidy and contained, windows lit. The lawn was knee-high and the path aglow with fallen maple blossoms. I liked the look of it. It felt like a house I had admired for some time. I had many of these houses on my bike route to and from the bakery, like friends I looked forward to seeing every day.
I hopped off my bike and carried it onto the porch. My mother opened the door abruptly and ushered me in.
“Hurry,” she said, “Before they get back.”
She took my wrist softly in her hand and led me down the hall to the dead Auntie’s bedroom. In the closet was trap door to a narrow attic under the eaves, barely more than a crawl space. I climbed up on a chair after my mother, then onto the short, creaky ladder rigged to the door. The floorboards were just warped planks laid over the ceiling beams that rocked side to side with our weight. I sneezed twice before my eyes adjusted to the flashlight pointed at the far side of the space. There was something in the corner that gleamed through the darkness and dust. My mother skittered over as quickly as she could and squatted there.
“Over here. Come on,” she beckoned.
I tipped myself forward to avoid the slope of roof and joined her.
“What is it?”
I squatted precariously on the weft of a plank. It was a half-gallon jar, full of amber liquid, frothy at the top and unfiltered, like beer. My mother had picked it up, I could tell, because her fingerprints were all over the layer of dust on it. She reached out and shifted it again, and something bobbed through the soup toward the glass.
“There’s something in there,” I said, reaching out to brush more dust from the jar. It looked like an organ. A body part. My mother lifted the jar to my face. It teetered and effervesced in the murk. It looked like a misshapen heart with two rangy arms, outstretched.
“It’s a heart?” I said, hopefully.
My mother scoffed. “It’s a uterus.”
Then she laughed with such mirth—more than I thought she had left in her.
Downstairs Mom made tea. She showed me a portrait of the dead Auntie when she was a girl, in the nineteen-thirties, all in white lace and bows like a child bride, and then snapshots at my age, in the fifties, bushy eyebrows and rhinestone glasses that came back in vogue briefly when I was in high school. Mom was carefully stowing all the memorabilia into labeled shoe boxes for the nieces. We sipped our tea in silence, the pictures spread out on the table.
“In ancient Greece,” mom said, looking up at me, “they believed that the uterus could move throughout a woman’s body, causing discord in all the body’s systems. The ‘wandering uterus,’ they called it. Pregnancy was the cure. A hysterectomy was a death sentence.”
“I know about Freud and all that, Mom. I just don’t understand why she put it in the attic.”
She rose to throw her tea bag in the trash.
“Some things become more terrifying when you forget them,” she said.
The next week I signed a lease with the nieces and they went back to California to wait out the lousy housing market. I promised them I would keep the flowerbeds weeded and scrape off the peeling wall paper, put up fresh coats of paint. We watched them drive away in their rental, then started unloading mom’s station wagon full of my things. When I got inside mom brought out a few boxes of things she had pretended to donate (in case the nieces threw a fit): tea towels and vases and a frayed paperback called The Cookbook for Poets by Ann Rogers. She put all of these things back in the drawers and cupboards they had lived in before.
“A place for everything and everything in its place,” she said, winking at me.
I looked at her saucer-eyed and we both laughed. The uterus was still in the attic, tucked away by the chimney. I considered bringing it down, now that the nieces were gone, but I didn’t know where I would put it. Under my bed? On the back of the toilet? In the kitchen, on the lazy Susan? I felt like mom was wondering the same thing, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to say so out loud.
We were giddy together for the first time in many years. Like when I was much younger and one of the Aunties would give me a suitcase or shopping bag full of her old clothes for dress-up. Mom would make us cups of strong Scottish tea with milk and sugar, and we would go through the clothes carefully, deliberately, one piece at a time. I tried on everything, however large or grotesque. There was a full length mirror at the end of the hall by the bathroom door, and we would stand at the end other end and gaze down the hallway at my bony frame, modeling the outfits. Sometimes the Aunties gave me slips and braziers and nylons with holes in the crotch; sometimes they gave me costume jewelry in violet pastille tins, and tubes of waxy coral lipstick worn down to nubs. The ways of the Aunties were strange, but those artifacts, properly examined, revealed untold mysteries of womanhood.
I picked up the cookbook and thumbed through a few pages. There were specks of béchamel sauce on the page for Welsh rarebit. There were smudges of the Auntie’s fingerprints.
“Was she a poet?” I asked, looking up at my mother balanced on a step stool to hang a spider plant in the kitchen window.
“Auntie Ramona. Was she a poet?”
“Oh, maybe in spirit. She answered phones for Daimler for fifty years.” She climbed down and eyed the plant, swaying over the sink. “She was lonely, anyway,” she said, folding the step stool with a snap.
After several trips back and forth in the car from my old apartment to the Auntie’s house, we drank beers and put my belongings away. Mom pulled stuff from boxes—a plastic tiger figurine from my childhood, say, worn at the ears from my busy hands,—and she would ask, Where? without words, with a look, because we were both so absorbed in touching things—each thing had to be handled and considered. I looked around the room, and finally gazed out the window and let my vision go soft. In my head I was making a map of the house, just behind my eyes. Then I would say one or two words, like, “mantle” or “window ledge” or “breakfast nook.”
As I spread my belongings throughout the house, I felt my self expanding in all directions. I stretched my arms out in every room; my lungs pulled in more air; my voice travelled farther and echoed longer. My eyes seemed to see more than they had before: I had flashes of another world, just beneath this one, or just a film over it, a transparency of the other world. Past or future, I couldn’t tell.
Weary, mom drove home late. She was spry, but starting to look worn at the edges, starting to show signs I had watched her watching in the Aunties. I kissed her at the door and watched her to make sure she turned on her headlights.
It was my weekend, and I intended to get up early to work on the house all day. I half-brushed my teeth, made the bed and crawled between the sheets in my underwear. Even my old bed felt bigger, my feet stretching towards the corners I couldn’t seem to reach. I tried sleeping, but I couldn’t reset my internal clock. It measured time, just like other clocks, but the sun and the moon were in opposite positions. My eyelids drifted up whenever I lowered them. I stared around the room. The boxes heaped around my bed looked like a family of bears. Mama bear, baby bear, baby bear.
I wondered whether wild animals ate the uteruses of their prey, and whether they savored the uterus, like one might a heart—our pet cats never left a mouse heart behind, only intestines, perhaps a spleen—or whether they gorged on the uterus ravenously along with all the other tender bits?
I reached for the lamp, and a notebook and pen from my bedside drawer. I propped myself up and drew she-bears until morning. Cloudy, weak light and generic birdsong lulled me to sleep.
I’m not one of those women who recounts her dreams.
I had the strangest dream last night, that woman starts, and then she tells you, undertone of awe, about all the baroque details, gesticulating in the air around her, and all the vague bits she can’t quite articulate, it was just a feeling I had, she says, or, in the dream, it had always been this way. When she’s done, she asks, What do you think it means? Or if she doesn’t ask, it’s implicit in the heavy pause that always comes after the telling of the dream. It must mean something. Because the opposite of this belief isn’t, as you might think, It means nothing, but I mean nothing.
So if I said: I went on like this for some time—about a year—living in the Auntie’s saltbox, waking at 2:30 A.M. and biking to work at the bakery, staying up on my nights off to draw until morning; then I told you, I remember not a single dream from all of that day-sleeping. Would you tell me that it means nothing? That I give too much weight to dreams?
One day I woke at three in the afternoon to a knocking at my door. It tore me from one of these vacant dreams, ringing in my ears. And when I looked around my warm, bright room, and the quiet neighborhood, all the workers still working their day away, the wind in the trees outside the open window, and heard the knocking again, I said to myself, mail lady, and then, looking at the clock, realizing the mail usually comes late morning: Mormon;, environmental activists; Girl Scouts. And when I lay there, adrenaline draining away, waiting for them to go away, and the knock came again, familiar this time, I thought: Mackintosh. So I threw back the blankets, and ran down the hall to the door. Would she knock again? That insistent clockclockclock. I crept to the door and put my ear up to it. I had no peephole in this door, and no reliable window to peek from without sticking my whole head out. I heard the movement of cloth, an arm resting by her side, shifting weight on the boards of the porch. Then a hand on the doorknob, testing the latch.
“Who’s there?!” I screamed, voice cracking like the in a nightmare. Silence. No reply, no movement. No footfalls on the steps or sidewalk. In a flood of heat—bravery? rage?—I threw open the door.
Of course she was gone. Of course she would be back.
On Mother’s Day I stayed awake all night and into the morning, then I took the bus out to my mom’s townhouse for brunch. I brought my notebook full of she-bears, wrapped in brown paper and ribbon. She started weeping before she opened it. I stood behind her at the table, to see what she saw. She sniffled and I pulled a crooked dried spider plant leaf from her tangled gray curls. She looked at each drawing, turning the pages carefully after several seconds. As she progressed through the notebook, her tears dried up. She inhaled each breath though her mouth and held it, then exhaled short, raspy sighs through her nose.
“They’re eating hearts?” she asked, bewildered.
I leaned over to see her face and realized that she didn’t remember. She had been forgetting lots of things like this, moments we shared, and probably ones we didn’t, ones that preceded my existence, dark little apertures where her time should be. Wormholes.
“Yes, hearts,” I said, smoothing her hair.
Alexis M. Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House, 2012) and Marrow Island (forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). She lives in Portland, Oregon with her son and three cats. For more, visit alexismsmith.com.
Sean Fitzroy is a filmmaker, writer and digital content creator living in Brooklyn. He also takes photos and struggles to appear charmingly self-deprecating in his bio. Visit him online at seanfitzroy.com.
Numbers And Letters is the music project of songwriter Katie Hasty. To date, the band has released full-length album Guns Under Water, and records a Christmas song every year for fans. Hasty is based in Los Angeles and is a longtime entertainment reporter/editor, formerly for Billboard and currently for HitFix.com. For more, visit the band online at numbersandlettersmusic.com.