One morning, we stood with a card in our hands, and though Our Mother was seated in the tiny circle of light at her sewing machine, she wasn’t sewing, the machine wasn’t humming, and we were afraid. Our Mother, she was holding her hand over her heart, her eyes closed, and though she looked almost peaceful, nearly solemn, there was a sullenness about her face we couldn’t place. So we called her name, loudly with pirate voices, scared maybe she’d gone dead inside, but the name or the buccaneer sounds brought her back from wherever she’d been, and she turned to us, and said only, quietly, At least my heart is still beating.
We always made cards for Our Mother. We made her ones for Mother’s day. We made ones for Valentine’s day. We made her birthday cards. Some of them we crafted at school, following the teacher’s instructions about where to cut, fold, write, draw, and some of them we made in our bedroom the morning of or the night before a day like Mother’s day or Valentine’s or her birthday, using our scissors and bins of crayons and markers.
One of the cards said Your heart is wide.
One of the cards said We love Our Mother.
One of the cards said No one rivals you.
We’d deliver the cards to Our Mother, who’d be seated in the tiny light of her sewing machine.
If this was when we were very young, she would be making a dress to wear on Our Father’s next return to shore, hoping he’d see this lovelier version of her. Our Mother wanted Our Father to fall in love again. Our Mother wanted to dance with him like it was the first time, beneath a sky of parted clouds and stars, bright bulbs strung above parquet. Likewise, we made attempts to impress Our Father anytime he came home, putting our very best pirate selves on display, flexing our buccaneer potential, showing him how we truly were boys ready to apprentice. But these, Our Mother’s and our wishes, they only poured out like the constant rain of this township.
And if this was later in our lives, when we were older, still boys but less so, Our Mother would be making a new dress only to hang it in a quiet closet full of others. These dresses were all shades of red, some bright and some flooded out and every shade between, in a form of bloodletting or a mockery of rubies, secretly hoping she’d find the one variation to bring Our Father back to their beginnings. But she couldn’t wear those new dresses, knowing as she did then the truth of Our Father, how his land-sickness would get overwhelming, how he became more pirate and less father with each passing day, how his leaving infected us with sadness.
We’d hand her the card we’d jointly made and we’d say Happy Mother’s Day or Happy Valentine’s Day or Happy Birthday and she’d take it from our hands, smiling before she’d even looked at the drawings we’d drawn there, beaming brightly without having read whatever the card said, the words we’d written in an attempt to make her happy.
We’d watch her smile, Our Mother who was stronger than this township. Our Mother who would never become a widow up on a widow’s walk, mewling at the sky. Our Mother who would rather turn ghost than be only a remembered woman. Our Mother who tackled loneliness with needle and thread. Our Mother who was not afraid to be haunting. But the smile she gave us when we handed her those cards was not a look of happiness. It was pride, nurturing, kindness. It was the delight of Our Mother in twin sons. It was love. The smile we wanted to give Our Mother was the look of pure and true happiness, and it was only possible in the masts of Our Father returning, which in Our Mother’s mind had become an impossibility.
But we made these cards for Our Mother anyway, and we handed them to her as lovingly as possible, there at the tiny light of the sewing machine, knowing we were only pirate sons who’d eventually break Our Mother’s heart in even worse ways than Our Father, who sailed onto the ocean and left us here to rupture in the sadness of this rainy township.
When we go to bed, when we fall asleep, one of us in a bunk above or below the other, done pretending planks and sails, cutlasses and pistols, Our Mother stops her sewing machine’s hum, a kettle simmering on the stove, and takes to reading. It is a book on mummification. It is an account of the oldest examples ever uncovered, and the first of those who was a small child, preserved now for thousands of years.
Our Mother reads cover to cover. Our Mother consumes the photographs.
That child’s skin is still skin. That child’s face is still a face. That child’s body had been, Our Mother reads, cut open and excavated. That child’s tissues and muscles had been hefted out, once the skin was splayed open, the bones removed. The bones were washed, scrubbed clean of their previous life, baptismally charred. The blood was let. The organs were cradled, soothed in a process of cleansing and rubbing, shining and skinning and shoring up before being returned to the body’s cavity in a re-arrangement, a new pattern for immortality, a circuitry repositioned for forever. The child’s insides were lined with vegetable matter and fur, the leavings of the land, all packed and re-packed to mimic the original body, how it once swooned with a child’s life. And Our Mother reads, how lastly the child was coated in a special ink, an ink first black then later red, then later still, those thousands of years ago, the coating looked more like mud than ink, but all the children beneath, black and red and brown, were staggeringly preserved.
This book Our Mother reads when we are in bed, when we are asleep, one of us above or below the other in bunk beds, it has taught her a new world. She reads it through and then again, nights on nights while we sleep, supplementing it with what television programs she finds late into the night, blended with commercials for all-in-one machines, digesting these programs when the only sound is the rain on the roof. Our Mother watches these television programs and learns how they made the bandages, how they wrapped the bodies, how they sutured and stitched, how they lined up all the final puzzled pieces. She sees in the book’s photographs and the filmed footage these faces, black and red and muddy, astoundingly calmed and stilled, children who will live on and on and on without ever growing old, growing up, without ever leaving their township, without any new sadness infecting them.
She sees the oldest child in the world beneath the glass case, pressurized and temperature controlled against the museum’s air, and Our Mother imagines how smooth that face would feel on her hand. Our Mother imagines traveling there, where this very first child lays in repose, the small museum in a small city where that child’s face still keeps these thousands of years later. Our Mother imagines herself with this child, the glass removed and her arms able to reach out and touch the tight forearm, the concave stomach, the sallow but beautiful color of its cheeks. Our Mother imagines placing her palm on this child’s chest, to feel the heart she knows is beating within. And Our Mother thinks of her own sons, of what is to come, how she too will coax the sadness from their bodies.
ContributorJ. A. Tyler
Previous work by J. A. TYLER has appeared in Diagram, Hayden's Ferry Review, Black Warrior Review, and Denver Quarterly among others. He teaches high school in Colorado.