My Mother Casting Bones
The first email came in August, on a Wednesday. I had just broken up with Dave a week before, and I was mad. At my squeaking chair, the wet, cold weather, the dryness of food I ate. Not desolated or enraged or fury or hate. Just a good, solid, one syllable emotion: mad. It was freeing, in that way. I had been mad for the entirety of the week post-leaving Dave on a wet park bench, staring stunned into a sweating banana smoothie. Unfortunately, my anger had started fizzing out in electric crackles, and, having nothing to fixate on and in a complete fit of boredom I decided to go through my personal inbox, which I only checked about once a week, and clean out spam and unsubscribe from ad services and newsletters.
My internet was slow and my inbox so weighted down with gigabytes that running the website and switching between pages became increasingly cumbersome, and I cursed and banged on my desk and restarted my router once, twice, four times, and then, after about an hour I was so furious about the whole process, and so happy to have found something to be freshly mad at, that I went to get a cup of coffee. I lived downtown at the time, above a bagel joint and near a park. It was busy that day, with people in suits filing in to grab coffee like dull gray beetles.
The email pinged into existence while I was out. I returned to it with a black and burnt coffee in a paper cup. “Miss You” it was addressed; and I could see in the preview text the words “To Clara,” which was my name. But it was from a personal email address, a Gmail account—one I didn’t recognize.
I briefly wondered if it was important and clicked it open.
It has been two days since you died.
I scrolled down to the bottom: “Mom.”
I scrolled back to the top.
I don’t know why, but at that moment I looked around me, even though I was sitting in my own apartment at my own kitchen table, like someone was going to jump out at me and surprise me. Maybe it was Dave, or one of his stupid friends. Maybe it was a co-worker, or maybe a thousand people were crammed behind my faded brown couch, all waiting to inform me that I was dead.
Maybe I was dead.
I started the letter again.
Suzanne Schumacher <email@example.com>
It has been two days since you died. They turned off the machines exactly one week and a half ago. Your dad was holding your hand; Molly had painted your nails blue, which is your favorite color. She said she wanted you to be pretty when you met Jesus.
I’ve never told anyone this, Clara, but I think you knew. The thing is I don’t think I believe in Jesus. I feel very sad about this, because it seems like I’m missing out on something everyone else has. The women in my prayer group tell beautiful stories about Jesus and what he has done for them and how peaceful they feel, and it seems like they can swim in a lake that I am sitting at the edge of because I didn’t bring my swimsuit. I don’t really think I can talk about this with anyone else because I think it would just confuse people. I don’t know. I’d always wanted to talk with you about this, but we were trying to raise you right and I was afraid it wouldn’t make sense.
Ever since you drew your last breath I haven’t shed a tear. Everyone else was crying. I feel them, all inside. I imagine them pooling in my brain, that there’s a little man behind my eyes who’s holding them back with a metal dam and a lever like in the cartoons. I know I will cry, but ever since you died all I’ve thought about is how I never told you I don’t believe in Jesus, and how you really wouldn’t have been confused at all, and in fact would have been the only person to understand that of me, and maybe you would talk to me about why I don’t believe in him. It would be nice to talk about it.
We are busy now, sometimes too busy to think. You’re going to be buried on Friday—I’ll tell you how that goes. We are getting day lilies and roses and your coffin is cedar. Your body is currently at the morgue, someone is sponging you down right now and filling you up with embalming fluid and they are making you look nice. You were in so much pain, at the end, so much that the doctors couldn’t keep up with it. I still have cuts on my hand from where your nails broke the skin—you were squeezing my hand so hard you made me bleed but I didn’t mind. When I opened my car door yesterday my hand was so sore I could barely lift the lever and it made me think that I had to tell you about it, that you would laugh at me and say “Sorry, Mom.”
So I’m writing to you instead. I hope you don’t mind.
I love you, I love you.
I sat for a few moments. Then I sat for a few minutes. Then I leaned back in my chair, mashing my left fist into my right palm.
“I don’t know anyone named Molly,” I finally said out loud, to myself. I nodded. A silent confirmation unto myself. Nope, universe, no one named Molly. Clearly a mistake.
Even so, I felt odd, disconcerted, like I was entering some kind of dissociative state. My own mother was constantly adrift in a world of thoughts much bigger than I would ever comprehend, but also somehow vastly more moronic than I imagined myself to be capable of. She was a psychic, or so she claimed, a medium who could see into the astral plane, or project onto it, or something. She could tell fortunes by gazing into people eyes; she could read symbols in the turn of a hand or the crossing of the legs. She would read tarot while clutching a heavy egg of rose quartz. It wasn’t impossible to imagine her emailing me something like this if only, as she constantly said, to prepare herself for the inevitable. So eventually, after turning a series of thoughts over and over in my head—strange, inappropriate, odd, would she?—I leaned across the table toward where my blue bag slumped apologetically in its chair, fished my phone out from an interior pocket, and dialed my mother.
She picked up after the second ring. “Clara?”
“I just got a bizarre email. Have you emailed me anything recently?”
“Clara.” Said with a note of reproachful disapprobation.
“You know I do not know how to use email.”
“I do not! What does the email say?”
I tapped my finger on the plastic edge of my computer case. “I don’t know. It’s weird, really weird. I don’t know if someone’s playing a joke on me or if someone is confused, but it doesn’t say who it’s from. Wait. Do you know a Suzanne Schumacher?”
“Well, it’s some woman emailing her dead daughter, or this is addressed to someone who’s dead—I don’t know what it could be talking about.”
“Someone who is dead?” I heard her piqued interest in the uptick of the last syllable of her sentence. “I could maybe gaze into the spirit world…but it might take me a few days. Oh! But I would need something of the deceased’s. Maybe the email?”
“Totally fine, Mom, you don’t have to do that.”
“No trouble at all.”
“It’s really ok.”
A pause, then, “Well.”
“I will think on this more. I will do some thinking.” My mom had wild hair that she pulled back in a haphazard bun near the nape of her neck. She hadn’t changed it in the entire time I’d been alive. She wore black peasant shirts and leggings and comfort sandals, and her house always smelled like warmth and cooking and the earthiness of animal musk—a combination of her cigarettes and two huge German Shepherds.
She wanted to ask me about Dave. I managed to cut her off, promising I would set all the stones she had given me for my birthday (all representing various chakras, all currently lost) out in the sun to charge and fill “with light, with energy, with love.” I hung up.
I started bouncing my leg up and down, a nervous habit as well. My phone glared at me.
I decided to take a walk. And yet, even after a good twenty minutes in I could not shake how restless I felt. Unnerved, I thought to myself. I was unnerved.
I hadn’t yet told my mother I had cheated on Dave. I didn’t know quite what her reaction would be—she had a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong, and when she determined that someone had acted unscrupulously she became serious and hard. She’d been sober for five years, and so she did not see moral transgressions as minor acts of human error, but large and heavy and universally consequential. Every slip was a step toward a pit that she herself had clawed her way out of, and no one in her eyes was more susceptible to iniquity than myself. We were on good terms at that time. We hadn’t been for the majority of my twenties. When I went away to college I all but ceased any communication I had with her, and this hurt her very deeply, in some spot underneath her lungs, and we were just now reaching out again toward each other across what sometimes felt like a deep canyon and what sometimes felt like a fast and terrifying river. And so I neither wanted to disappoint her, nor listen to a lecture, nor be treated with silent but unreserved judgment.
But I had cheated. Dave was kind, but he was not exciting. He was getting a little fat. He liked to think that he was funny, but sometimes his jokes were crass or mean. Everyone loved him, and I did too, for a little while. But the more I knew him, the more I was with him, the more I noticed that he whenever he laughed it revealed food stuck to in his teeth, whenever I ordered a drink he needled me about my distaste for beer, that he surrounded himself with friends that seemed to be able to find no flaw in him, and so he could find no flaw in himself.
So maybe I thought I was better than him for a while as well. And then I was out with some friends from work and a man across the bar had interesting hands and he introduced himself as Bryan (with a “y”), and I slept with him and it was vicious and drunk and intoxicating, and then I started seeing Bryan for about a month, and then I called Dave and bought him a banana smoothie and broke up with him.
And the worst part of it all was this: that after I left Dave, Bryan called and I felt annoyed and drained of energy, and I did not pick up, and had not returned any of his other calls even though I wanted to. There was a wall in my head now, a complete inability to speak with him, or even think about him, without feeling completely devoid of thought or emotion. As news of the break up spread during the last week, I’d stopped receiving messages from friends. It seemed that amongst the people that knew us, I was the unequivocal villain. And while I didn’t really think that Dave, or anyone who knew him, might have been responsible for the email, I finally came to a street corner, having convinced myself that at least I should ask the question. Should put it to rest. Should reach out and ask for a little consideration. And so I called Dave.
It rang twice before he answered, said “Hello?”
“Oh,” I said, practically expelled. “Oh, um, I didn’t think you’d pick up.”
There was an uncomfortable yet imperceptible pause before he said, “Yeah. I still have some stuff of yours so I thought maybe you needed it.”
Another beat. “Oh, right, yes, yeah, I’ll get that from you soon. Listen, I actually have a question, a different question.”
I scuffed my toe along the sidewalk. It was fall and freezing, but bright and crisp that day, almost warm if you stood in the sun for a long time. “I just got a bizarre email. I was just wondering if any of your friends were, were trying to prank me? And if they could…not do that.”
I felt him getting upset—I was calling to accuse him after all this time? Me, who had not a leg to stand on? It was odd, when you knew someone as well as I knew Dave, how you knew what they were thinking. I wanted to believe that it was chemical, that it was romance, but I also knew that maybe it was just series upon series of interconnecting patterns, and that he had reacted this way before, and before that, and that it was never going to surprise me, really, when he got upset because it was just his way, it was just his pattern, and maybe it was all just a grand coincidence that we had overlapped at all.
“They wouldn’t do that, Clara. You know that.”
“No, I know, I just. Um. It was just really bizarre and I thought, you know, I thought that maybe someone was trying to make a joke. Have a laugh and, and stuff. But it’s just a sensitive time, you know, and that would be mean.”
“Are you perpetually four years old, or are you seriously calling me to ask me not to be mean to you?”
He was putting his hand in his pocket now, he was adopting a stance that leaned forward, into space that, if I had been there, would have been mine, but was probably just empty air; an intimidation of the cosmos, of the electromagnetic field, in the absence of my physical form.
“No, now, no, Dave, stop it, that’s not what I mean. I mean, you should be decent anyway, you should always be decent, but that’s not what I’m saying.”
“Fuck you, Clara.”
“Right. Ok. Fine.” I hung up on him, tried to break my phone punching the buttons. Measly prick. Measly miserable fucking asshole.
And yet. I couldn’t muster up anger anymore, but nor did I feel tears, hot or cold, spring to my eyes. I just felt a deep ache next to my heart, travelling up and down my esophagus. I felt hurt, and lonely. I walked back home.
Eventually, it was time that slipped away from me, more than anything else. After returning to my apartment I decided to go into work and try to forget my conversation with Dave. I had a fairly loose schedule, with the ability to set my own hours, and so I really only sat at my actual desk in my actual office when I needed complete and total distraction from my own thoughts. I was working as an account director and coordinator for a communications firm in the city, and with no small amount of gratitude I buried my head into the sand of intra-departmental press releases for the legal accounts I’d recently been assigned. When I went home that night I had forgotten about the email, only recalling it every once in a while, instead choosing to fabricate imaginary arguments with people I knew and people I had seen in the street, arguments in which I was clever and cruel.
It was two weeks later that I received the second email. “To Clara.”
Re: Miss You
Suzanne Schumacher <firstname.lastname@example.org>
I’m sorry I didn’t write like I said I would. It was so hectic here, I could barely find the time. We’ve just now cleared the last of your cousins and aunts and uncles out of the house, and to be honest I found myself embarrassed. Embarrassed! I was scared someone would find me writing and think I was a nut. I’ve never been confident at all, but you knew that. Everyone wanted to stay and help, cook meals and talk. No one would leave me alone. I felt like I was on watch, like they thought I was going to hurl myself out the nearest window the minute they took their eyes off me. Aunt Rose Marie eventually got them all out. It was sweet, but now I have too much food. The ladies at church put a dinner rotation together, they way they did for Rachel Henderson when her husband died, and told your dad about it, to clear it, I suppose, and he agreed (of course) and now we have chicken casserole stacked floor to ceiling. And they didn’t ask me! It’s like everyone wants to help me, but no one wants to talk to me. Evidently my emotional state is “delicate” and I wouldn’t be able to handle cooking or a chat. I’ll break down.
I wouldn’t break down, I don’t think. This was such a long time coming. I’ve had time to think and accept and say goodbye to you. Still, even though you know something terrible is about to happen, it always surprises you when it does. It sneaks up on you, hits you right in the gut, even when you saw it running towards you a mile down the road. I shouldn’t have been embarrassed to write to you. People make me so nervous.
The funeral was beautiful. I suppose, in the way that funerals are, because really, in my opinion, their bad and they smell bad and everyone is staring at you, waiting for something to happen, and there’s a body there and it’s horrible because it’s not the person who died, it’s not anything at all. And we are to pretend that it is not horrible and terrifying. Your dad took photographs but I don’t want to see them. I want to hold it in my head in a certain way forever. I want to remember the pink cushions on the church seats and the way the fabric was pilling up from use. I want to remember that over-clean, antique smell that churches have. Protestant ones, anyway. I remember when I was a girl and I would go to Mass with my grandma, your great-grandma, and the incense would burn and the church and the altar and priest would become smoky and it would smell sharp and good. Your prayers were supposed to rise on the smoke, all the way up to heaven, but the whole time I would sit and think that it was probably staining the white ceiling.
I have decided that this Sunday I will not go to church, but will take a long walk in the park. I wish, wherever you are, that you would join me, and even if I don’t see you, I’ll know you’re there.
I almost did it, I hit reply and my fingers hovered over my keyboard and they were about to say something mundane, something terrible, hello ma’am you have the wrong email.
And then, for some reason, I thought about my mother, and how, when I was small, maybe ten, we walked outside and we were late for school and for work and there was the car, piled under six inches of thick powdery snow, and my mom had to carefully reach inside the car, balancing snow on the car door, to grab the ice brush and then, an idea formed in her brain, and she beckoned to me, mischief thick on her voice, and I came around the other side, and there she was, ice brush stuck like a tomahawk into the six inches of snow, and she laughed and yelped and in one grand motion swept all the snow on to me, so that my world was suddenly and personally white, and the flakes all burst apart and fell about my face and head and arms and body, and it was a wonder to see the light all through the ice, and it was cold. And I stood in shock for a moment, feeling it melt into my hair and wet my eyelashes, feel it seep between my coat sleeves and gloves and soak the skin of my wrists, and my mother was laughing at me. And then I picked up a big slab of snow and hurled it at her, and it hit her square in the stomach, and she “oof”-ed and then we were running all over our driveway and yard, my mother in her long skirts and wild hair, pelting snow at each other, and it burst in wild explosions about our shoulders and legs, and then my mom collapsed beneath me and whispered, “Fuck it.” And we went back inside, wrapped ourselves in blankets, and fell asleep. I remembered how it was one of the few times when I was young that her mind had been clear and clean, and how much I loved her then, even when I had to extract myself from her later, even when she walked away down a long road under an open sky and I stood with a suitcase and a biting rock of amethyst in my hand, which she gave me with cloudy eyes, swaying, which I threw after her in a long arc until it looked like the falling of a star, which hit her, dead in the middle of her back, between the jagged chips of her shoulder blades, and she did not turn to look at me.
So instead, I replied and said this:
Re: Miss You
I’m sorry I died. I didn’t mean to hurt you, or Molly, or Dad. Thank Aunt Rose Marie for me, I know how hard it is to have everyone at the house.
I was thinking, perhaps we could talk more, about life, yours and mine, and about walking and darkness, and maybe we could still be friends? I miss you, and I always will.
I love you,
That night I visited my mother’s house. She wanted to make lentil soup out of a recipe book she found in a thrift store. I arrived and knocked and she threw open the door, pushing me aside as she wrapped a long scarf around her shoulders and intoned deeply and with feeling, “Clara, we need to purchase an immersion blender.”
“Well, Mom,” I said, hiking my bag up over my shoulder, “there’s home goods store on 17th and Walnut.”
She put a palm to her forehead, closed her eyes. “Yes,” she said after a moment, “there is. You are right.”
We went in her car, which she kept meticulously clean. It smelled like Clorox wipes and cigarette smoke. She had an apple scented ball of wax hanging from her rearview mirror and a few coins in the cup holders. On the way back she rolled down the windows and the wind whipped and crinkled the plastic shopping bag containing her new blender, which she had thrown in the backseat. I reached around to transfer it to the safety of the foot well, and then turned to her.
“Mom. I cheated on Dave.”
She did not say anything. She was rubbing her temple with her pointer finger. If you did not know her it would look like she had not registered my confession, but I did know her, and I saw that behind her eyes she was packing this information into a box, shelving it and shutting a door. After a few minutes she turned to me.
“Did you hurt him?”
My throat felt tight. “Yes.”
“Because I didn’t like him anymore. Because he was mean to me.”
She turned the steering wheel with one hand, pulled into her driveway.
“People will always be mean to you, Clara.” She pulled the key out of the ignition and rubbed her thumb up and down the metal, jagged shaft. Then, she looked up and met my gaze, and I saw that she had judged something in me, almost as if she had become satisfied with something about me, until I saw, because only I could see it, that she had forgiven me. That what flashed across her mind, like a lighthouse beacon, was the deepness of my need for her, which she had not given, which she had not known, which she had taken into the heat of her life and burned.
We ate, and then we made a doll of Dave, at the core of which she put a bloodstone wrapped in a curse she’d written on an old receipt. May all his food become sand on his tongue. She cackled as she did it, sewing the little burlap doll up, and then we took it outside to the fire pit she’d built, and we burned it. It was going to rain, and the clouded sky was becoming quickly blacker and blacker. The rains in those days were heavy and cold. They bent down trees and they flooded the streets. They carried debris: cat bones and driftwood and thick clots of leaves. They were headed by green and yellow clouds of air; sometimes for weeks before the rain fell. In the distance there was always a rolling thick gray-purple darkness like the bow of some ship. When it did finally fall, it lit up the sky.
Her dogs circled our legs and bodies, one finally choosing to lean the whole of himself heavily against my side as we watched the fire burn, panting and licking his black nose. My mother’s eyes, which were constantly becoming older, sparkled. She took my hand in hers. She had silver rings on every finger, and they felt heavy and cool on my skin. She’d kept every bottle she’d ever drunk from, and strung them up on wires around her yard. When the wind blew, the air passed over their dry and open lips so that it sounded like the deep, tumultuous song of a whale warning its herd of a passing ship.
The next week I went to work, light as air. Words poured out of me, a great volume of words, and for a while, I did not feel mad, or even hurt, and I did not miss Dave. On Thursday, the email came, and I waited until I got home, an exercise in patience. I imagined all the roads this woman might have walked, all the ways she might have come to meet me, that maybe in a past life we had been friends, or lovers, and that we would meet again and again in an unending pattern, that the rebirthing of souls was real and that everyone we met, ever, was someone we met once before.
I opened her email.
Re: Miss You
Suzanne Schumacher <email@example.com>
I’m sorry that I had the wrong email. However, I don’t think that gives you any license to make fun of me, or what my family is going through. You don’t know us, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. How dare you make a joke of out of our suffering.
I will pray for you.
I felt all the skin on my forehead crumble up and burn and fall away. My mouth hung open in shock, and my forearms, resting next to my keyboard in neat parallels, were suddenly leaden. My mind was completely blank, completely clear.
I was angry, then I was guilty, then I was tired. My leg was bouncing, up and down, up and down, up and down.
I went for a walk. I thought about Bryan. I thought about his hands, and the veins knitted around his knuckles. I felt my phone in my pocket. I imagined calling him, arranging to meet at his apartment, tracing my fingertips along the blades of his shoulders. I thought about apologizing, but to whom, and for what, I didn’t know. The sun slipped steadily downward, the light gray and hard. I thought about my mother, about what I had lost and what I deserved to lose, because I deserved to lose something, and I didn’t know what it was.
I walked until I couldn’t feel the sides of my nostrils, until I knew my cheeks were chapped, until the wind had blown my hair flat against my scalp, until the air had scraped the first layer of my body away from me and I became viscous and could no longer feel my feet on the darkening earth. Ahead of me I saw a girl turning, her hair coming loose from its braid. Her eyes were yellow and vulpine, and they were two shining lantern lights, two wild and preposterous beacons in the deep before me. She was reaching out an open, translucent, fey hand to me, and then the wind quickened, and she was gone.