It happened first at the train station. I was twelve and my mother was still young, thirties, maybe. The wind was peeling the skin off of our nostrils in the way that it does, especially, in the wintertime. In our arms we carried groceries: carrots to stir into stews, packaged slabs of lamb, two large grapefruits. A huge vat of Vaseline collected lint and lipstick stains in my mother’s purse.
“Here,” she said, handing me a packet of tissues as I tried to blow snot on to my sleeves without her noticing. She didn’t admonish me or anything, which was strange, considering how she was always talk talk talking about what I had done wrong that day, and if not that, about how she should have married her Swedish-Canadian boyfriend back in the eighth grade and not my stupid, useless, clown of a father, and if not that then about the state of her cuticles and bunions, or.
I blew my nose on the tissue. It was decorated with small pictures of a cartoon mouse, whose voice I always hated. Peeking up at my mother, I thought about maybe asking her if something was on her mind, even if I didn’t really care that much. She was too busy gnawing on her thumb to notice, gnawing the tip of it away with her teeth, a tic I hadn’t noticed before. Small circles of skin collected at her feet, dusting the tops of her sensible white shoes.
“Mama, you’re bleeding.” I spoke before I could stop myself, and I winced away from the inevitable backlash that was coming.
Instead, she kept on chewing, eyes diseased with a strange brightness, soft gurgles of pleasure erupting from somewhere deep in her throat. Blood flecked the collar of her coat. I wanted to scream but I knew that in the back of my mind that I couldn’t or that something awful, just awful, would happen if I did. The pack of cartoon tissues dangled forgotten at my side.
“Come on,” Mama said, pulling me on to the train. Her voice wasn’t that of a monster’s or even my mother’s. It was sweet, vulnerable, like the underbelly of a cat.
We sat on the cushioned seats reserved for the ill and elderly. The train wheezed its way back into starting up again, the passengers around us asleep or busy with their novellas. Nobody glanced our way. One man reached into his coat to pull out the remains of his roast beef sandwich, tenderizing the meat with too-white veneers. Hot smells of blood and mustard travelled throughout the car, making me want to vomit.
I stared straight ahead of me, shaking. Only five minutes we had been on the train and yet my mother, having successfully swallowed her thumb, had now jammed the whole of her hand into her mouth. She made impatient, wet noises as she ground up the painted acrylics of her nails, hacking and spitting as splintered bone caught her throat. I am helpless, I thought, and I begged the rest of the passengers to notice me, to alert me about what I should do, and yet they did nothing. One teenage girl met my desperate eyes and smiled sweetly before turning back to her friend to discuss the newest trend in fashion technology, where they had discovered shade of pink to weave into clothing that brightened or dulled depending on how romantic a person was feeling that day.
We arrived at our stop. “Please carry the groceries,” my mother said, as she no longer had arms, her shoulders gristly underneath the remains of the purple blouse she had picked out this morning, fluttering down the stairs to prepare coffee and wheat toast for Papa, with his high blood sugar and intolerance for frills, before he left to visit his mother in a neighboring town. A man entering the train bumped into us as the doors opened and we passengers came spilling out. “Pardon me,” he said to my mother, tipping his hat as he hurried by.
The street to our house was dark now, peppered with white frost. I had never once cried out to my mother as a young child, preferring the attention of my father, but now I craved for her love, the too strong touch of her hands as they braided my hair, the attentiveness to small details such as my untied shoes and jam-stained clothes. Mama, mama, I wanted to cry. Look at the snow, Mama, but she was so many steps away from me, hurrying along the sidewalk as if fleeing, her mouth working around her right shoulder, flapping like a trout’s. I could barely see her figure any more, and my arms had grown tired from carrying the bags of groceries.
I was exhausted and frozen when I finally reached the door of our house, panic fogging up the corners of my mind as I gently pushed the door open with my foot. The house mirrored the outside world: bleak, silent, black. A soft glow of light pulsed like an erratic vein in the living room, and I knew that she was there.
Dropping the groceries on the floor, I forced myself to look inside. There, past the furniture and tangle of shoes and history books, sat the head of my mother, tongue desperately lashing out to find the taste of skin, an animal of its own. And yet it was the eyes that frightened me the most, the perfect serenity in them as they looked up at me from the ground and twinkled with something akin to love for the first time in my whole life.