watercolor by Shaun Lawton
Before initiating the fair-haired waif into our metabolic ceremony, a host of issues attended my repose. The old man and I weren't exactly on speaking terms since the last hibernation. I suffered from a bad back, incurred from a combination of plowing the vegetable garden and an extended bout of overeating that past season. All that's left of our family is the old man and I, our memories tainted by painful associations with the mother. I have been forbidden by him to relate so much as a single detail about her, with the only exception that she existed. Hence my being provoked to write this down, as a means to preserve what I remember of her. I've often wondered, why didn't the old begetter just wish to bury her secret altogether? I think I know the answer, now. He must've felt that leaking the faintest whisper of her existence might put the cork in the bottle somehow. That is to say, to give blush to the lie, so to speak. There's a certain comfort in thinking superstitions aren't true. Whatever it was the old buzzard kept alive in his narrow skull, it's nothing but crumpled paper, now. Time to light a match to it.
I used to get the uneasy feeling that if nothing were told about her at all, people might begin to suspect more about us somehow, and our exceptional nature would be revealed. Chalk it off to tell-tale heart syndrome, I guess. Blank spaces need to be filled. When word of her presence fell casually upon turned ears, it was almost as if this sealed the questions of her whereabouts and origins. Folks out here this far north mind their own business, you see. A brief reminder the old man had once been married was enough to stop them asking more questions; although granted, not enough to keep them from fervently wondering. But they knew to leave well enough alone when it came to sorrowful matters at the heart of a family. I regret ever having mentioned the mother to anyone, really, but it's far too late for that now. Whispers about her character have been let out of their cage and transformed into opinions; some bright, most dull. All I can do is tell my story from the beginning, in the only way that I know how.
I grew up lonesome with the old man in our flaking clapboard abode, amid the scent of Balsam firs and split maple trees. It was a low roofed hovel fixed amid a fell of rocks not half a mile from the seashore. It was protected by a thicket of closely grown hemlock, pine, aspen, and elm trees bound in by a ferocious Himalayan blackberry bush which served as a myriad pin-pointed barricade between the wind and the sea. It was my duty to cut the savage, thorny vines back and to insure it was bound into a circuitous route fencing that side of our rough-hewn property. The old man and I don't much stand the approach of strangers.
It was the old man who taught me how to cut off the blackberry bush's best stalks and replant them in the ground where we wanted the rising beast to emerge. He showed me how to shape and direct its offspring by clipping a section of the root to produce the strongest branches. He taught me to fertilize the ground with abalone shells and phosphorous and other things in order to yield the largest and best blackberries. As we had greater access to the inner sanctum of the great thorned bush, our collected berries went for the highest price in the local marketplace. They were considered the gold standard as long as anyone could remember, always winning the blue ribbon prize whenever I bothered entering the state fair competition.
Our personal region of the coastal forest was so interwoven with the elaborate maze of the spiny bush's fantastic outgrowth, that no one in our area was all that aware of our domicile's entrance within the brambly copse. It was generally felt to be an untamed area anyhow, in reference to our surrounds, and the local folk stayed out of its interior, content to merely approach its outer perimeter on sunny days to pluck what fat, juicy berries they could for their tarts and pies, leaving the rest for wild bird-feed. Besides, the fishers that lived deep within this part of the forest had built a vicious reputation. Not even the local dogs would stray near our territory. The occasional rogue boar found fuming about didn't help matters, either. Whenever we happened to snag one in a trap, the old man and I feasted on some of the toughest, stringiest meat the two of us had ever tried, but boy was it tasty.
My father taught me things I suspect no one knows. One thing I learned from him was how the perennial plant links up, at the cellular level, with the human brain's most secret synapses. The network of individual cells in a person's brain ranks alongside the number of stars in our galaxy, according to him. This blackberry bush contained an arcane component for enleavening that only he knew about, he told me once when I was five years old. He insisted it contained elements that would transform us for the better. He whispered me its secret during a violent thunderstorm one winter I'll never forget. When it came time to send me to bed after filling my head with esoteric gardener's lore, the old man would indicate for me to "Go on, now..." and visit the mother in the rear lower chamber of our cavernous dwelling.
The trouble with my memory happens to deal with the shape of the mother. I only knew it to be a somewhat misshapen bulk of gathered shadow nearby. I could sense primal vibrations from it, sometimes velvety and lush, with deep undertones I'd be drawn to with longing, until I got too close, at which point the murmuring would stop cold, leaving only the sound of my muffled heartbeat thumping in my chest. The mother would drawl out in a series of humming chirps and muffled flutters which I'd respond to emotionally, depending on the intonation.
Sometimes there was an urgency which warned to keep my guard and distance. Other times the thrumming would soften to a kind of purr, leading me closer until I approached the bulk of her shadow, when the vibration would cease of a sudden once again, bringing me to a stop before her. These moments, when I lay as close to the mother as I was permitted, were always cool and pleasant. There would be a chill that I couldn't understand, because although it may have been a winter's night, this coldness came from within, while the waves could be heard to crash into the distance upon the rocky beach. At the same time, I'd be comforted by the idea that no other living creatures dared approach within a hundred yards. I always thought the blackberry bush was the reason. Only when I got older did I realize the greater, underlying cause of it.
Often I would listen into the darkness of the mother gathered in shadow before me, and hear a soft rasping sound, as if something enormous were uncoiling smoothly, becoming even larger. I felt the air would energize, as if a charge were building from this action. I would stare fixedly ahead into the spot I knew the mother to be, and my mind would conjure suggestions of images. I could picture the soft black hairs of a spider, but the more I looked at it, I'd realize it was just a black puddle of oil reflecting stars. The oily substance would ripple, elongate and shimmer in one direction, then reverse its flow in the other direction. The glossy undulations would start to smudge and then render into stippled velvet for a moment, and this would flatten back out into obscure shadow once again. I'd blink and suddenly, nothing. Just ordinary darkness. A lack of presence. I'd look up at the black mold that had gathered on the ceiling and realize how much it looked like deep space.
I knew these to be the instances in which the mother had retreated. Yet I could never determine to where she'd gone, or exactly how she'd managed it. She would be there for a spell, and then she wouldn't. I often wondered how such a powerful being as that could mobilize without disruption, and a part of me knew the answer, but somehow kept that to itself. As if protecting my conscious mind. After the mother had gone away, the old man would return, stepping softly into our cul-de-sac, and mutter under his breath that it was time to heat up some water for coffee or tea.
The old man would often ask if I'd pulled the ragweed and lion's mane earlier, and I'd sigh and get on with those chores. It didn't matter if it was the middle of the night. I'd look to the stars during these times for a shape blotting out the constellations, but only found obscure clouds slowly drifting by overhead. Days and often weeks would bleed away before the mother returned from her nocturnal sojourns. I would sometimes become aware that she was calling out to me, but from within my cranium. This always left me a little uneasy, especially when glancing over at the old man, noticing his profile sitting by the wood stove, still and relaxed, as he dozed off in his favorite oak chair. It appeared that only I could hear what the mother had to say on occasions such as this.
She never communicated in words. It was always impressions, thick, vivid, cold, startling. My head would feel as if it were being filled with black gelatin. Sometimes it would fill up quick and warm, other times very slowly and much colder. These instances of my head being glutted would occur in intervals, sometimes short, other times taking longer and laden with more intricacy. Certain thoughts would be conveyed with a sense of effervescent wonder, the sensation of my skull being filled up taking on the feeling of a carbonated beverage being poured into a glass. Other times the thoughts were much denser, no bubbles in it at all, just a complete sort of solid dark displacement which threatened to suffocate. Contained within the various extremes of these modalities, the thoughts would beckon and develop in my brain until I understood what it was the mother said.
The day the mother left us for good, I had just turned nine. My head was full of the densest charcoal pitch I'd ever felt. It was like liquid onyx being poured into a bullet mold. The small space left in my forehead warmed up and appeared in my mind's eye almost as a purplish hue, like the faintest blushing of a sunset about to be drowned under eventide. This coloration (not unlike the rich shade of berries I picked seasonally and sold to market) seemed to contain a message for me in and of itself. Then it winked out, a final sunset swallowed by the eclipse of nightfall. That was the last time the mother ever spoke to me. I never told the old man about it. He wouldn't understand anyhow. It was her way of saying goodbye.
When I turned ten years old, our blackberry bush experienced a profound increase in growth, to the point I had to stay up later every day that summer to hack it back. I could swear some days the canes of wicked thorns, thick as my wrist in places, would snake out rapidly enough for me to actually see them growing, at about the pace of a second hand sweeping around the face of a clock. I once stood before a curling out tendril to test this, and before my heart pounded four times in my chest the tip of the vine reached me, brushing my nose. I stood rooted to the spot, shocked at how fast the branch grew and before I knew it, the thorned green cane pushed past the bridge of my nose and into my eye, pricking the cornea just enough for me to jerk away, scratching my lower eyelid in the process. I stumbled back from the reaching tendril of the spined creature, and without thinking lashed out with my pruning knife, hacking the end of the new vine off clean, and watched it drop to the dirt at my feet. I stomped on it with my boot, crushing it in a rage.
Afterward I began developing the black and purple rash around my left eye. I showed the old man and he only looked away, shaking his head, muttering something under his breath. I took it to be a family curse, the way his expression reflected familiarity with the strange raised welts spreading from the corner of my eye toward my ear. "Eat more berries tonight," would be his only advice. I did and the rash would be gone by the next morning. But drinking the blood clotting berry juice always left me ravenous. I'd then be compelled to hunt down a rabbit or fowl or wayfaring boar and roast it up whole, picking the meat off its bones with my knife by our campfire, until the craving in my stomach let up. If I declined having more blackberry juice, the old man would have none of that, insisting I devour more. At least I liked the taste, there was just something about it that always left me unsettled.
It wasn't until I reached early manhood myself that I understood the meaning behind the impressions the mother had left with me as a growing child. She had only been showing me in her own way the importance of my being properly fed. I never understood this until I took down my first changeling, on the night before I turned nineteen. It was from a distant township, with fair and golden hair, and the palest legs I'd ever seen. She'd been a regular sight on clear evenings as of late. I often spotted her down by the seaside under a full moon.
I knew this one to be the prize because it strayed from the rest of its colony on moonlit nights, wandering alone down by the sea shore, drawn by the waves and the cold spray crashing against the rocks. Little did she know who gazed at her lissome form every night from within the tangles of the blackberry bush leaves. It was little old me. The first time I spotted her down by the ocean's edge I knew she was the one I was meant to have. The mother's voice no longer filled my head, but the echoes of what she'd said to me as a boy haunted to remind me. It was as if she had suggested there were a missing puzzle piece. A portion of softest alabaster broken off the moon. Something for me to treasure as all my own. A secret with a name. Sonia.
In this case, the secret turned out to be a young lady from a clutch of migrants passing through. She was the daughter of a Mennonite preacher who led the travelling clan on their way to Saskatchewan, she said. I think I frightened her the first time I approached from the forest's edge, but only for a moment, apparently. My sudden presence only startled her, she reassured me. All I could do is look at her. Her beauty radiated a certain light which blended immediately with the night. I swear if I stared at her long enough she would disappear. I would only find her again after noticing the patch of stars her outline blotted out. Then she'd regain focus, her pale features blooming out of the dark and into sharp contrast before me.
We got in the habit of meeting by the cove after dusk. The tang of salt in the air and the sound of waves crashing into the distance serenaded us beneath the sprawling constellations. I was never one much for talking but she had a way of loosening my tongue. I told her about my gardening and how I diligently pruned the immense blackberry bush on our property. She was curious about my heritage. She kept asking me about my ancestry. I'd tell her I didn't know much about that. My father had inherited the land and the old house from his grandfather. It had been around in our genealogy for generations. When she asked about my mother, I evaded the issue by glancing away and muttering about how she'd passed on when I was younger. Our meetings were always cut short when Sonia suddenly had to leave before it got too late. She always said her father would have her hide if he found out about our trysts.
I only ever saw Sonia long after the sun had set and the stars had come out. Although her hair was as white as spun cotton, her eyes appeared darker than the evening about us. She had a twist about her smile that I found charming. Her skin shone like a bottle of milk glowing in the dead of night. I only wanted to drink up her every last warm drop until I was glutted. I had an idea about how to accomplish that. While staring at her my eyes would glaze over as impressions reverberated in my head. I was left standing there with the idea having formed in my mind to lure her into our thorned sanctum. I would bury her there under the watchful eye of the moonlight.
Her limber form was just the compost I needed to bring our berries to their plumpest and juiciest. So on our third meeting together I worked up the courage to ask her, "Would you like to see our Himalayan blackberry bush?" Apparently this was the right thing to say, because she swooned toward me and smiled, holding out her pallid hand for me to take in mine. This was her unspoken permission for me to lead the way, the twist about her smile indicating it was okay. I was honored to show her the way through the thickets to our lonesome, ramshackle home. The darkness surrounding us hummed with insects and the air was filled with the murmur of moths. An assortment of pollen was blown in adrift on the wind from the sea. The last time she looked at me, I felt calm and serene. The strange pressure in my head had been alleviated.
When she first saw the old man, she screamed. By then of course it was a tad too late for my beautiful Sonia. Her cries of alarm were swallowed up by the thick growth of nettles and vines and tightly interlocked branches of trees. A flutter of sparrows was disturbed outside momentarily. The intent look in the old man's eye said it all. She will do, that look said. Oh, she'll do. To me, those eyes stated you've done well. The mother would be proud. I smiled, feeling pleased inside. I knew he was right. So we dined for awhile on her pressed wine and tripe, with blackberries and sweetbreads all through the rest of that cold winter night.
Art by Cal Leckie
Return This Saturday, March 21
the FREEZINE of
Fantasy and Science