After the Tone

Mother. Here we are, then. The call you told me was inevitable, the one where I come crawling back and, in your incomparable imagination, you open your arms and welcome me, darling misguided duckling, back into the fold.

I wonder, though, if I managed to exceed even your most outlandish predictions for how long I would hold out on you. If in all your estimations of my stubborn nature you could have predicted this. Ten years. Going on eleven in a month.

All those years and I find myself still talking like you. ‘Dictionary dialogue’ is what my friends call it. Yes, Mother, I have friends now. And a job and a sweet-as-ice-cream man all mine who lets me put my feet on the coffee table and doesn’t mind when I forget to take off my shoes. If there is a spot on one of the clean knives, he uses it anyway; though of course, afterwards, I will spend the rest of the evening trying to scrub it off. ‘You’re airing your mother out, darling’ is what John calls that fine quirk of mine. Like letting stale air out of the attic.

I am trying to remember the way you smelled.

Copper, maybe. Or peppermint. Something crisp, a twist of a tang. Your kisses, those rare ones you would fling clumsily like paint in the general direction of my face, landing somewhere in the range between my temple and high cheekbone, always carried your scent, and my nose would crunch up involuntarily, no matter how I tried suppressing the urge. You always noticed, and your head would make a movement, quick as irritation, though your face never changed expression.

Then your hand would pat me awkwardly on the shoulder again as I was passed back to the nanny. ‘Wash her hair, Rosanne, please, this is a dear sight for the neighbours.’ This meaning me, naturally.

Then you inevitably turned on your heels and click-clacked away, not once turning your head back over your shoulder to me, and I long gave up trying to keep my eyes from tracking your back all the way out of sight.

I remember other things clear as sunshine. When there were still goodnight kisses and I could run around the house wearing muddy boots. When the dreamy tones of the piano followed me from room to room. There was light in your eyes then, and though your smile was thin as a papercut I loved you for it, feeling your tremulous effort and wanting desperately to make it easier for you to be happy, because I was happy.

That was the time before you became ice, Mother. Before the nannies and the empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s lining up the garage wall like crime photographs. Before the silverware became advertisement shiny, before the change of clothes upon entering the house, the different pair of gloves for every room.

Did you remember that time at all, Mother? How on summery days you would open the gates to let the dogs roam free in the fields beyond our backyard, them chasing rabbits right back into their holes while you ran behind them laughing, barefoot even, and grass stuck to your heels, but you never even looked down. And you wore seagreen dresses that billowed like sails, your hair wild in the wind and the colour of daffodil fields, and me running around your skirts while your hands darted out at me, my name falling from the air like birdsong as I spun in and out of your ballooning dress, the sense of the sun upon us deep and clean, and I wanted to be you.

Sometimes I recall the man. Just bits of memory that float around in the back of my mind only to drift to the surface unexpectedly, when I find a loose cufflink on the bathroom tiles, or when John wears a necktie the colour of old sweat. A muffled groan, a closed bedroom door. He did not live with us, but when he came he would make you smile for a few hours.

One autumn morning in particular, your hair was ruffled like a bird’s nest while you were making breakfast, humming under your breath as you flipped the pancakes. That day you let me watch while you did this, as I tried to figure out the magic trick. Balance, you told me. ‘Timing and balance is key, Sarah Jane. Don’t overthink it. Just do it.’ Your thin-lipped smile seemed to curl up at the corners, and I knew you had a secret.

That was the year of the slow winter, so long the days they seemed to run in reverse. The marzipan light was hanging low over the town, so brittle it should have shattered under the forceful glare of the frost. Instead it lay soft as pollen on all things, and at night the blanket rolled out gently by the rise of the moon.

You sat by the fireplace and rubbed your swollen belly, your eyes on the fire while I stomped my feet and pouted about wanting to go out on the lake, play with the dog and jump the cracks. ‘Not by yourself, Sarah Jane. And anyway it’s too cold,’ you said, not even turning your head towards me as you vetoed my moonlight stroll across the ice.

I remember sulking, not understanding why you couldn’t come with me, why you couldn’t put on a coat. I remember thinking maybe the big belly got in the way of closing up your favourite fur coat. I remember twisting your objections around in my head. It wasn’t Mother saying I couldn’t go without her. It was that the weather was still too cold.

A week or so after the talk by the fireplace, I woke up to the sound of dripping water outside my window. I opened my eyes to see the icicles surrounding the windowpane weeping themselves smaller and smaller, and instantly my mood was made. Tiptoeing quietly past your bedroom, I got Chipper out of the kitchen where the maid usually put him after his breakfast, grabbed the seagreen coat you had just bought for me—‘So you don’t have to miss my skirts this winter, Sarah Jane’—and we snuck out the back door, only to throw all care to the wind and set off running for the lake languishing in the middle of our yard.

That day the rivers had melted, but the air was still full of ice. The lake, however, looked like solid glinting rock to me: no new cracks showing on the surface, no pools of water forming anywhere. Chipper put one cautious paw on the ice, softly keening at the touch of frost. Then he put his weight on the ice; it held. I grinned, bent down to grab a small branch off the ground, and flung it far ahead towards the centre of the lake. Chipper, delighted to play, chased swiftly after it.

I laughed at his eagerness, loving the feel of the chill upon my cheeks as I ran out after him without checking for cracks, feeling invincible. I was running so fast I felt as though my feet were gliding over the ice; I could have been flying. In fact, when my foot failed to touch ice a part of me did not register it, thinking I was still in full flight. Then my other foot followed, and I fell headlong into the gap in the ice that my young and careless eyes had failed to notice the dog sidestepping.

Going under, my first thought was not a real thought, rather a truth my bones were telling me through my soaking clothes: too cold. It didn’t occur to me to try to swim, to even move my arms. It was too cold to move, too cold to do anything but be cold. My second thought was of you, Mother. Of how mad you would be when you saw I had brought Chipper out here. That I had gone outside when you said I couldn’t. I remember thinking you would be mad, so mad.

You weren’t mad. Though I cannot really know how you felt after I blacked out, of course. Nor can I know how you felt after I woke up feverish but alive with the doctor’s assistant sitting by my bedside.

Where is Mother? I tried to ask, but through the hoarseness of my throat it came out as ‘rismudda?’ The assistant didn’t understand, so I tried again, this time asking Doctor? ‘octa?’ She didn’t understand until I managed to lift my arm, which seemed to be on fire, and pointed at the stethoscope around her neck.

‘Oh! Sweetie, the doctor’s with your mom. He’s taking care of her right now.’ She patted me on the head like a good little pet. ‘Everything’s going to be alright, you just see.’

I didn’t understand how anything could be alright if the doctor was with you instead of me. Then I heard screams coming from behind the wall, from the next room. My mother’s screams were coming from my mother’s room and all the doctor’s assistant did as I started yelling, calling, crying for you, was pet my arm in a panicky gesture as she kept repeating in a squeaky pitch how everything was going to be okay, you just wait, it’s all going to be alright now.

Mother, I didn’t understand for years what you had done, what had happened. How Chipper’s frantic barks woke you, how you came running and saw me under the ice, jumping in after me without your coat on, without much of anything on. How the shock made you go into labour. How my brother came out looking blue just like me under the ice. There was blood too, and when the doctor carried out your son, my brother, you started scratching the blood off your skin with your fingernails until the doctor came back in and made you stop.

He told me all this, our old doctor, just a few days ago when I came to collect your documents. You don’t tell an eight-year-old such things. You didn’t, anyway. All you ever told me about that time was that I had ruined a perfectly good coat, and would I please never speak of it again. I especially remember the please. You started wearing gloves after that, and I never saw your papercut smile again.

Every ensuing season seemed to chip away at you, taking more and more pieces away from the mother I knew. There were no green dresses or skirts worn that springtime. You were still pale and thin, and the only thing that seemed to make you feel better was the springtime cleaning, which lasted well into summer.

You also grew to despise noise, any noise. Whenever I came back into the house after playing outside that summer, I would bang the screen door too loudly, and I remember you flinching every time I did, before you got control of your face and wiped the slate clean again. I became part of the background noise to you, irritating your senses, my hands too grubby for you to stand my touch.

Love was a piano you played by ear. After that winter, you stopped playing.

Mother, I want you to know now I do not blame you anymore. I do not blame you for not knowing where to put your kisses. For making my friends wear gloves inside the house and dissolving into hysterics whenever they forgot to take their shoes off, so that over time none of them would come home with me anymore. For not allowing me to play at their houses for fear of the germs I might bring back with me, and that one time I did anyway and you spent two hours scrubbing me down was lesson enough.

I do not blame you for having my nannies attend the parent- teacher meetings, my graduations, my school plays. For never letting me near you again after eight, because at night you drank and couldn’t brace yourself against the cold of your room, my little brother’s ghost in the bed beside you, without the liquor to stiffen your spine. For taking one look at me as I entered your study at eighteen, shaking in my boots as I handed you my diploma—first in my class, special honours in English and art—and you saying, in a voice brittle as ice-breath, ‘Good for you, Sarah Jane. Now you can start making yourself useful in this household. I’m getting too old to clean it all by myself.’

I do not even blame you for watching me pack my bags the following morning, for your stoic silence until I was almost out the door, when: ‘You’ll be back. Of course you will. I won’t even say I told you so. Call when you get there, please.’

It was like being under the ice again, Mother. It was as though you were saying you didn’t care a whit for what I may or may not do with my life so long as it wasn’t under your roof, your watchful eye.

Maybe you thought I would walk out and your son would walk in. Maybe I disappointed you that much, just for living in his stead.

I got it into my head that I could return home to you only if I had proven myself to be capable, commendable, worthy of living a life apart from you. I held the absurd notion that you would notice me only when I proved that I didn’t sink under again. That this time I tested the waters, skimmed the cracks, noted the depths with clear eyes, and came out safe and steadfast on the other side.

It never occurred to me that the way you were with me might not have had anything to do with me at all. I always assumed you blamed me, Mother; but maybe, just maybe, you only blamed yourself. You were really trying to rub yourself clean, weren’t you, Mother? You never got out from under the ice.

I was someone with you that I could never be with anyone else and will never be again. I was a daughter. And sometimes, when I fail to clamp down on the thought, I recall that you too were more than a mother, more than just my mother: that you had a life of your own and smiles and secrets I never touched. And how I might have known more than just the edges of them had I remained a daughter to you. Perhaps the only thing I was to blame for, really, was leaving you behind. Leaving the absence of myself, my daughter self, with you. Just another ghost in the room.

The last you saw of me was my back. I swore to myself I wouldn’t look over my shoulder as I walked away from you that day, as I closed the gate behind me. I didn’t want to know whether you were watching me, whether you weren’t. Yet I never stopped feeling your eyes on me, Mother. I felt them when I let my university friends into my one-bedroom apartment and asked them as nicely as I knew how to, please, take off their shoes. When John kissed me for the first time and I moved to wipe my lips. When he first played the piano for me, I burst into tears, and for the longest time I couldn’t explain to him why.

I try to flip pancakes now, just the way you used to do. I’ve got the balance right, but not the timing. When I feel ice on the air I think of you, of old Chipper who lies buried in the fields behind your house and has for seven years. I never said goodbye to him either.

I wanted to call you, Mother. I would have, had the doctor’s call not come first. I should go soon, actually, before the guests arrive for the funeral. We’re burying you out there, beside Chipper, in the fields where you laughed in your seagreen dress, where the rabbits will come out in summertime and gather at your feet, nipping the grass.

But before we do, I wanted to give you your call. Or maybe I just wanted to hear your voice on your answering machine one last time. Maybe I was afraid I wouldn’t remember. I’m not sure. Maybe there can be more than one truth at once.

But I would have called you, Mother. We would not have reached eleven. I would have called you, my voice hoarse as the day I fell through the ice, to tell you I was pregnant.

I am pregnant, Mother. This one won’t go under the ice, I promise you.

– Malu Bremer