by Ethel Rohan
While Mother lay in the hospital dying, my aunts gathered in our dirty kitchen and brewed tea, cried and laughed together. My mother’s woman parts hadn’t worked right since her first baby and still she’d gone on to have five more. With The Change, Mother’s parts gave out altogether and she couldn’t stop bleeding, but that wasn’t what was killing her. The surgery to stop her hemorrhaging went well. It was afterwards her blood poisoned. I crouched on the stairs above our kitchen, cold in my nightdress and sick in my stomach, and repeated ‘septicemia’ till I couldn’t hear the whispers anymore. I wondered how something that tasted so lovely could kill.
Dad stayed at the hospital through the night. Some time in the deep dark, Granny shook us awake and urged us to pray. She said Mother wouldn’t see morning. My little sisters and I clung to each other in our parents’ bed. Mother’s pillow smelled of her hairspray and face powder, of her yeasty drool. We fought for our turn to hold the pillow, to bury our faces deep inside. Every time I closed my eyes I saw God pull Mother through a black hole in the sky.
“It’s God’s will,” Granny said, like there was no point to our promises and pleas. “Pray for her safe departure.”
I hated how Granny said ‘safe departure.’ As if there could be anything safe about dying. As if Mother would wait with suitcases alone in the dark on a fog filled platform for Death. My sisters and I disobeyed Granny and continued to pray for Mother to get well. Mother made it through to the next morning, and the one after that, and the one after that, until, recovered, she came home. A miracle.
Only Mother wasn’t the same. She looked thinner, her skin and hair grayer, and a smell rose off her like clothes singed by the iron. I thought maybe the doctors had somehow switched her at the hospital or taken too much out of her. She took to taller and taller glasses of brandy and was often joined by invisible friends—laughed and sang with them. Sometimes things turned ugly and the imaginary guests argued and smashed furniture. Then Mother cowered, and begged us, her children, to get rid of them.
Once, for no good reason, one of our dogs bit an old man in the meatiest part of his calf. Prince tore the man’s skin and drew blood, left holes like BB blasts. That man’s face was a dark tangle of feelings. Prince licked his lips and seemed to smile. Ever after, I was a camera carrying around those pictures. I loved Prince so much, and he loved me, but it was hard to feel the same way about him after that, all the rules changed. That’s how it was with Mother too.
Mother should have died that night in the hospital. My sisters and I had ruined God’s plan. We’d prayed too hard to get our own way and had brought Mother home when she should have gone into the ground. Only we didn’t get her back. Mother was stuck out there somewhere, caught at the fork in the sky. We had the smell of singed clothes.
Originally published in Pear Noir! Issue 4.
Included in Hard to Say (PANK, 2011)
Appears here with the author’s permission, © Ethel Rohan
Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say (PANK) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, Southeast Review Online, and elsewhere. Raised in Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco. Visit her at ethelrohan.com.