By CONOR ROBIN MADIGAN.
SOME SONS OF dead mothers will seek out ways to keep their mother living beyond her expiration date.
Young men collect clothing, articles of memory, to have séances in secret to make captive their comfort having mother near.
In one case, a few years ago, a groom, newly bereft of his mother within months of the wedding in a small chapel in Chicago, had found a family of children in the woods where his betrothed had led him in his madness of hidden grief, hidden under the flashing smiles of newlywed joy of their trip to her native homeland.
Mary hadn’t been down to visit that often. Angular fear of travel. Not a simple drive, either; a skip over to Pulaski, and if you miss it you end up at the airport; or was it Devon—one of those goddamn streets.
Her brother had only recently married. The woman had created in Mary’s brother a new and loving creature from decades of him having sniped and poked her in social situations.
She drives following phone directions, allowing others impatient to pass. In her armpits an aching fear of being late, of taking the wrong street once again; but the phone will help, won’t it, and she’ll soon be in Jim’s newly loving arms, and her two nieces are usually more anxious than Mary!
The bungalow sits in a row of bungalow homes, thin walkways between. At knee’s height the basement windows shed light through short curtains to the walkways in late evenings—basements of artists up late at their easel, or children crafting with mother dear.
Mary heads across the lawn and between homes, the thin walkway patters her favorite black flats. Some movement, a shadow across a light’s path—she bends to see inside the basement, and through a dark room Jim and Alex stand in singular hallway light, staring into each other’s eyes, a vibrant buzz to their connective stare, leaning forward not inches from each other’s face. Seconds pass, a half minute, a full minute—in her brother’s eyes vibrant wideness.
They pass each other in the hallway having said not a word.
What had it been? Mary had knelt to watch between flower-pattern curtains. She remains for a time. She stands and reaches out to the stucco wall, rough and sharp on her palm. She pushes. The pain shores up her will. What had she seen? No matter. None of her business.
The girls attack her. One tells her about Jim’s farting. Another, the younger, a five-year-old in full unicorn garb, explains she’s been to the woods and found the ancient family of child-people. Mary lifts the youngest to her hip. Jim kisses her on the cheek.
“You’ve sweated through your pits,” Jim says.
“I hate that drive,” she says.
Alex comes through the basement door to the hallway, spins and holds out her hand to her sister-in-law and says, “your cheeks are so pink! You must be thirsty.”
They retire to the front of the home. Mary has a beer. She calms, forgets, allows the nieces their searching, prodding love.
In the woods, a mystic to whom God had revealed himself had seen within contact the way to keep a child alive who had been born to die. The family of children; of living less death.
The body hadn’t been easy to handle, but Alex knew the best way. A small box for her mother-in-law’s tiny body. Expensive to retrieve her from the morgue; but corruption in a corrupt city…
To get to Romania isn’t easy. Once they arrived in Bucharest, though they were a tired and new family, Alex put the girls to sleep in the backseat of their rental, Jim and Alex drove the way to Moldavia.
The woods hadn’t been easy to find, but Alex knew the way. She stroked her fingers through Jim’s hair to calm him. A street sign, illegible; a dirt road in ancient hills; a clearing before a forest, and in the dark a group of huddled children.
Mary stays through the evening, her beers mounting. And the girls had gone to bed. Alex retrieves vodka from the fridge. Thick, cold shots, anise seed and smooth to the gullet.
Jim brings Mary blanket and pillow. She sleeps a few hours on the couch, but softness. She moves to the floor under a ceiling fan. She places her head on the pillow and through the floor a soft voice, a murmuring brook, a soft skipping record of a flute or the mid-range of a french horn, some glottal to its familiar babble.
Mary bare-foots the hallway to the basement door, steps to the basement, hallway to the front of the home, a new door at the end of the hallway, she opens the door and in the room a bed, a lamp on a port table, a chair at bedside.
“Un copil din nou,” the murmuring brook says.
A voice. Some voice from so long ago, a voice purring to a child. Mary loses her legs, crouching to the sway of the room, her body deep under ocean waves, murmurs farther away, “un copil,” then through a hallway, a whisper then through a pillow.
Morning sun from the south windows breaks upon Mary’s face. A faint clamoring in the kitchen. A pair of little knees leans against her.
“Momma is making french toast,” she whispers.
Mary follows little one to the kitchen.
“Sleep okay?” Alex says.
“Too soft on the couch.”
Little one climbs a chair to reach the powdered sugar. She places her finger in its bowl.
“Opriți copilul,” Alex spurns her little girl.
Mary’s knees go wobbly. The sound, copil, from the murmuring brook. Not a dream. She sits at the breakfast table, unable then to move.
A child was walking with the mystic through a fog.
“I am a child once more,” the mystic said.
“Impossible,” the child said.
“I had passed from one moment to the next, a dying man to childhood.”
“And I am not alone.”
“No, and far from it, you may never be alone.”
“It’s my greatest fear.”
“No one should fear that. Fear is meant for fast flowing water; for long jumps over unseeable distances; for physical pain, like the thorn or the burn; but not for longing, yearning, loneliness, or…”
“Would you like to know how the passing felt?”
“That place where I skipped an entire body of water to something new on a distant shore.”
“I’m not sure I would want to know. And I do not understand what you’ve said.”
“Isn’t there pleasure in not knowing some things?” the child said.
The children approached Jim and Alex and the box. From the trees a small multitude approached.
“Whom have you brought?” a boy said.
“My mother,” Jim said.
“You understand it isn’t all you wish you get?”
“We understand,” Alex said.
“She will only say one thing.”
“Can I choose what she will say?”
“God knows what she will say.”
The body was brought forth. A child mounted the body. Not a single moment, but some change.
Jim’s mother embraced the child, sat up and carried the child, stood and held the child.
Jim and Alex went to her. She turned and said a simple phrase.
“What’s it mean?” Jim said.
“A child once more,” Alex said.
THE MOUNTAINTOPS CAME through the fog, but little else could be seen. The opaque wilderness surrounded them, though the child feared nothing he could not see—excepting loneliness—and to fear what we cannot see, this is the realm of insanity and intelligence.
“I’m afraid of what I do not know,” the mystic said.
“My mother says that is a form of intelligence.”
“I do not remember my mother.”
“I am sorry.”
“I’m not sure I would want to know your mother.”
“She sounds much more intelligent than I am. I like my women stupid.”
“Then you will fear many things, Mystic.”
“You are a man who fears all things if you fear Her.”
A moment came in the fog when the mystic felt he saw numbers of warriors in the clearing and shifting moors. He flinched and stopped walking, to look around. The child left him. Soon the mystic returned, having raced to get back to the child’s side.
“I thought I saw something.”
“What do you think you saw?”
“Warriors all around.”
Jim gathered up his mother in his arms and placed her in the back seat. Alex took her youngest daughter in her arms. The gathering of children began clucking sounds, sucking their tongues; they waved their hands at their waists, causing a confusion of the image of their retreat into the woods, where they multiplied and sifted into the dark trees.
“My momma’s back for me,” Jim said, weeping.
“Oh my darling.”
His mother slept, breathing deep into her rest. Days into her rest she woke in a small flat in Bucharest. She moaned out. Her daughter-in-law brought her to a courtyard, enclosed and dark with dusk. She chased chickens in the night.
“Now that we have a grandmother, can we go home?” the daughters asked at inappropriate and annoying times.
“Yes, soon,” their mother said.
Jim slept in a chair by his mother’s bed, calmed her upon her waking, and listened to the round of her complaint, the same words spoken time and again, never changing.
“I have been a man,” the child said.
“Like you, I am a child once more. The first, really.”
“So you know how it feels.”
“I chose to forget long before you all.”
“Why? It’s a miraculous feeling.”
“No. Cheating is not miraculous, and winning after cheating is not miraculous.”
“I guess. But it’s the perfect ache of smiling in the sun. I love the feeling.”
“You have cheated; you will suffer.”
“How? I am a child again!”
“You will remember two lives. You will suffer both equally.”
“No matter. I am a child once more.”
“I fear being alone. I will be alone.”
“I am here.”
“Oh, but you are not,” the child said.
The mystic kept a conversation with the child. Words spoken, some of them not understood, went unexplained, then gone to the fog. How to choose the right time… and in that moment be rid of them all. But the child remained with the mystic to listen, to learn what she had created; this man born a child once more, allowed to linger and change and grow. O, the hours of patience before a decision, the rubbing of her chin at the thought of some of his premises, and circular meandering words. Fed up and long in the tooth one evening, when sleep couldn’t come soon enough for him, she made her decision that by the morning… she will have made a decision. The weight of choosing is logarithmic. She bit into a finger to hold her tongue.
The man slept. The child stared at the stars. Insects and animals made their double-faces into a pond. A lumbering giant plodded past and to the beat of the mystic‘s heart. The child wanted so awfully to have a companion, a soul to enjoy, but not one that spoke so much. Too much. Often, he spoke when there was nothing to say. Built like that, the soul would never be quiet. Look at him dreaming. Even there, he mumbles and begs, cries and quibbles. Not a thing can be done for it. Man reborn must be limited; so those living who will die will stand them only for so much longer until they must, at their most grief-emptied days, decide to relieve the soul of its long, long wait.
She snubbed the mystic in his sleep with the plodding giant.
But soon multitudes entered and asked and celebrated like the mystic, and found too they were children once more. She couldn’t stand it.
“I’m a child once more,” a mystic said through the fog.
“You talk too much, mystic,” she said.
Conor Robin Madigan lives in the midwest and writes novels. Preceded by Cut Up (The Republic of Letters Books), A time to come to a place and introduce oneself, his third novel, is followed by A Strange Kind of Trying, Carr’s Encounter At Titan, and a collection of shorter stories, Deliver Us From Evil. His recent work can be found in current and forthcoming issues of Ginosko Literary Journal and Moon City Review. Past work and contact information is posted at conormadigan.com.
Note: “Mother Child” was revised after publication to correct an editing error.