The following short story from Kathryn Harlan's debut collection, Fruiting Bodies. Harlan received an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she now teaches writing. She was the recipient of the 2019 August Derleth Graduate Creative Writing Prize. Her work has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere.
You know it’s going to be a bad day when you get up and find yourself already in the kitchen, seated at the table and eating Cheerios. The you at the kitchen table is thirteen, and she’s eating the Cheerios straight out of the box by the fistful. Try to call her Maura. You are also Maura. Two people can have the same name, but two people cannot be the same person. A few Cheerios fall from Maura’s hand and roll pinwheels across the tile. You tap your foot.
Maura doesn’t look up, hiding behind the grease slick of her hair. Your hygiene at thirteen was awful—how often did you shower? Once a week? “Are you going to clean up after yourself?”
She rolls her eyes, slides off her chair, and swipes the mess up with a napkin. “Good morning.”
If Maura is here it means your mother has published an essay. You ask Maura where it is this time, but she ignores you, licks her fingers, and then reaches back into the cereal box. The teenage iterations of you are the worst, though thirteen is not as bad as the years that followed it; angst-ridden, messy, uncooperative. There’s a minor foam of acne bubbling on Maura’s left cheek.
You turn to the counter to make your coffee. Looking at her is like looking at a photograph of yourself taken too long ago to remember the circumstances of it, recognizing yourself there, but being unable to recall ever inhabiting that moment. That’s more words than you ever put to a photograph of yourself, but of course it’s different when the uncanny feeling is made flesh, taking up room and air. Picking at her cuticles like you still pick at your cuticles, though you have the self-control now to stop before they bleed. She, tugging a pale strip of skin between her front teeth, autocannibalistic, does not. It’s a kind of emotional headache, a knot of buzzing tightness forming at the base of your throat where your collarbones notch. You put your eyes back on the coffee grounds.
“I don’t have time for this today,” you tell her. “You’re going to have to take the train to Mom’s.”
“I hate the train.”
“I know.” You put your coffee down, and go and get a banana. There’s nothing else breakfasty around, you’ve been putting off shopping. The Cheerios aren’t looking appealing.
“What do you have to do anyway?”
“Work. It’s Thursday.” That might be a real headache building in addition to the existential one; stress. It’s only seven-fifteen. You’re not late yet, though you are starting to fall behind, standing in the doorway half-dressed and without your hair brushed.
Maura raises a two-finger gun to her forehead, mimes pulling the trigger. “That’s not funny,” you reprimand her. It just sort of feels like you should.
It took you until Maura’s third reprise in your life to realize that she came from your mother and not from some glitch in your own connection with reality. Your mother was publishing infrequently back then; you’ve heard it takes a while to get a leg up in publishing. And you were twenty-one, more than halfway to twenty-two, closing out the semester with straight As for the first time in your life and with a winter internship lined up helping to organize fundraisers at the local Planned Parenthood. When you took a step back from your life and looked at it, it was almost like you’d become an adult.
You found Maura in the bathtub that time—not taking a bath, though not having done anything else either. Lying there with her feet kicked up and her heels resting on the tile. She was seventeen, and could have passed for you in a heartbeat. It seemed possible she’d been sent to punish you for feeling well. At lunch, your friend April found you, and sat across the table from you and you. People don’t ask you for an explanation. You still don’t know why that is. She slides through the world conveniently, half real as she is. Other people don’t need to be told to call her by your name. They do it automatically. “This is so absolutely fucked up,” April said. And you nodded, laughing. It certainly was. She put her laptop in front of you.
On her laptop, she had an essay your mother had written about your suicide attempt. You did make a suicide attempt, when you were seventeen.
“Did you give her permission to write about this?”
While you read, you could feel Maura behind you. Not doing anything in particular, just breathing, twisting a nervous hand in her hair. You could hear the individual strands grinding together. “I didn’t even know she wrote about me,” you told April. Which was true. You didn’t read your mother’s writing. Because you didn’t want to have to talk about it with her. Because sometimes it was about people you knew: your uncle, your grandfather, the neighbors. Because you didn’t like the way she sounded on paper, much softer and more elegant. You didn’t like how much you liked that person.
Your mother had spilled everything all over the page. Your ugly crying, things you said but couldn’t remember saying, the way your skin divided neatly into two white walls between which blood spilled. You eventually had to block that article so you would stop rereading it; not the whole thing, just that one bit. The page unzipping, your skin unzipping, your blood, your mother.
If you are wondering what kind of child you were: You were a child terrified of your own body. You were afraid of the bird flu, of radiation poisoning, chemical warfare, poisonous plants, spiders. You nurtured up fear like a little green shoot, watered it, fertilized it, put it out in the sun. Encyclopedias, Wikipedia, library books. Mustard gas, Chernobyl, the rhododendrons growing in your mother’s front yard. A video of snake venom injected into a petri dish of human blood, which bubbled, fizzled, and then congealed like Jell-O. The corpse of a black widow your mother smashed on the side of the front door; for three weeks you insisted on going out the back. Until your mother scooped you up in her arms, squeezing you around the ribs while you screamed, kicked, pounded disobedient fists between her shoulder blades. So afraid you nearly seized with it, she carried you out to the sidewalk. “See, Maura? It’s fine. You’re fine.” That incident was what first put you on a therapist’s overcushioned sofa. You were far too old to be screaming that way.
You shouldn’t have been surprised by the accuracy of your mother’s writing. Your mother took notes for most of your life. She was an organized woman. She carried a binder. People with severe health conditions—chronic, life-threatening, rare—have said this is what a person has to do. Have a binder for all the doctors, the operations, the diagnoses, the medications, the allergies. A woman whose memoir you read for some undergraduate class, a woman who nearly died of a very rare illness—orphan disease, that’s the term for a sickness so particular no one could make any money off a cure—came to speak in front of your class once. Her mother had a sunshine-yellow binder, her mother kept every paper, wrote down every word. Some note about some allergy lost in a hospital transfer, that comprehensive thoroughness saved this woman’s life. You’re giving her that? No. The sound of pages flipping. You can’t give her that.
There may be common knowledges between people who love sick people. Your binder, your mother’s binder, that is, was blue, and had maura written across the front and down the spine in thick Sharpie letters. Once in a while you might imagine a line of mothers stood behind a line of binders, shelved front to back cover, in a long, neat library. Yours had print-offs from the pharmacy, pamphlets, scanned paperwork, chunks of parenting books and self-help books copied off and marked up with a highlighter, a calendar. Your mother always knew how far you were into a prescription. If you found yourself standing in front of the medicine cabinet, unable to remember if you’d taken your meds that day or not, you could count them, and call down the hallway to her for the right number. This was something you could rely on.
And notes, and notes, and notes. You always knew she had a memo pad in there, her pencil scratching away from a chair beside you. She used those little golf pencils, stubby as pinkie fingers. Why would you have thought to check what she was writing? You never asked to see the bills from the insurance, the emails she wrote when you missed school for a doctor’s appointment, you didn’t know your own Social Security number—there was a parental infrastructure, which you could count on like you count on the water to come out of the tap.
Three hours of Maura sullen on your faded office couch and demanding to play with your phone is quite enough. You skip out on your lunch hour to take her home. The noonday sun is pouring hot through your car windows, and you’re tasting an apology to your boss because you know you’re not going to make it back on time. You never do. Maura looks up from where she’s lolling her head against the window and says, “She published a book.”
You ease on the brake as you hit a red light, only look over at Maura once the car is stopped. She’s leaning her forehead against the glass again, probably smudging it. “What?”
“Mom. She published an essay collection.”
There goes your stomach, bottom dropped out. Like the feeling you get whenever your mother texts you. Every time, the stomach, and then a rush of cold from your fingertips up through your shoulders down into your rib cage. “When?”
Maura turns and looks at you, finally. God, were your eyes that big when you were younger? Are they still? Maybe she isn’t quite thirteen. Her eyes are big as moons. “You didn’t know?”
You don’t know if she’s making fun of you or if she’s really surprised. Try not to ask whether Maura knows what she is, if she is anything. Someone behind you lays on the horn.
You go to the Trader Joe’s and stock up on the expensive spiced tea you used to love, ginger and chai. You put Nutella in the cabinet. You buy a few puzzles, a stuffed animal, your favorite books when you were nine, thirteen, seventeen. Of course, you’ve tried being kind to her—you’re not a monster—but this may be more prophylaxis than kindness. Keep her seen to, keep her busy. You walk two blocks to the bookstore. There is a stack of hardcovers on the new-releases stand, your mother’s name stamped onto them in smooth raised letters. Almost unanimously, your therapists have encouraged you not to read her writing, but there are concrete realities to prepare for. Or at least concrete presences, even if their reality is dubious. Thank God for small mercies, maybe, that you did not wake up to twelve of yourself in the kitchen this morning, a Maura for every essay. That does not mean a promise for tomorrow morning. Take the collection off the shelf; the cover is simple but well done, a traditional family tree that, halfway up its trunk, shifts to a web of neurons like cracks in a plate. Clever. Your mother has titled the book Parthenogenesis.
Mercies or not, you don’t get a long reprieve. One of the Mauras comes with you to therapy the next morning. She’s eight. She perches on the back of the couch behind you, braiding your hair while you try to speak. Braiding it badly; she keeps pulling. “This is an invasion of privacy,” your therapist says, as you extend the book across the table to her. She opens the book in her lap, and then shuts it again quickly. Maybe she doesn’t want you to think she’s reading about you. You two have already discussed this—I want to hear things the way you want to share them, she said.
Toward the end of the session she says, “Why do you worry so much what your mother thinks of you?” And you and Maura both break up laughing. She falls off the sofa, rolls across the floor, just nearly misses landing at your therapist’s feet and instead bangs her shoulder on the little coffee table. “Shit,” your therapist says, and you nod your agreement. You’ve got a headache setting in that grips your whole spine; you could almost mistake it for sympathetic pain. “That’ll leave a bruise.”
Does Maura know what she is? If she is anything. Does she know she isn’t right? That she is written.
Last year, at the onset of an episode so bad you ended up having to switch medications, you went to the Getty. You love the Getty. If a museum could be your boyfriend, if you could run away with and marry a museum, the Getty with its sharp angled jaw would be second to none. Your flesh-and-blood boyfriend had lately left (bad communication), but that isn’t what cracked you, you aren’t that kind of woman. Or maybe you work hard not to be that kind of woman. The seasons going; the chemical sea change of the brain; maybe the sudden emptiness of your apartment; maybe the sudden fullness of it, when you woke up with Maura’s spiny, pale body—like the hollow shell a sea urchin leaves when it dies—snuggled up to your side, her toddler face snuffling into your neck, companionate, inseparable; maybe the small boy who tumbled off the play structure at your school and then sat bleeding quietly on your office couch while he waited for the ambulance, a seismic fault line opened in his skull. One way or another, you were wrung out; like someone had broken your bones open and scraped out all the marrow.
When you want to feel something, an art museum is good for you, but it is very bad when you’re sitting there inside it like a smooth shelled egg and you still can’t feel anything. There was a little sculpture of the archangel Michael casting the fallen angels out of heaven, which you spent a long time walking around and bending over, studying the details. Not of Michael, an avenging baby in his flowing robe, but the funnel of hell-bound devils beneath him: a mass of grotesque faces and warped limbs, stumped shoulders, twisted necks. What kinds of art do you love and not want to love? Martyrings, beheading scenes, those still lifes of dead animals draped over tables, their fur lax, their glass eyes open. Sometimes a severed arm is as close as you can get to feeling real, the imagined thrill of pain. The sensation of being meat.
There are twelve essays in the collection. You count them; don’t read them yet. They have titles like “In Loco Parentis,” “Death and the Maiden.” Sometimes you must have to wonder who your mother thinks she is.
Maura is around. Two or three more incarnations of her pass, more rapid-fire than you’ve ever become used to, but otherwise uneventfully. She moves things in your pantry while you sleep, uses your shampoo to run herself a bubble bath and leaves the bathroom floor wet. She puts your books facedown on the kitchen table so their spines bend.
A problem with having Maura around a lot is seeing your own body in motion. When you are in public sometimes strangers’ eyes track her movements instead of yours. Her greasy hair, the sloppy sprawl of her posture, the paunch of baby fat you kept too long into your teenage years.
As a little girl—tiny; four, five?—the looks she gives you are so worried, and when she’s a teenager her face is hateful, furious as the smell of blood on a barbecue. “We could at least try to get along,” you might say. She pulls your lips back from your teeth.
“I don’t like myself very much.”
Some Mauras are stickier than others, do not disappear quietly in the night. You bring those to your mother’s house. You usually stand at a distance, but the fifth Maura, who has been uncharacteristically docile, you walk to the door. She rings the bell for you. Take a breath. Hold still, Maura, it’s just your mother.
Your mother opens the door, and she opens her arms. She takes Maura into them. She always does this. You’ve watched her do it from your car window, from the lawn, from your mind’s eye. You often think of an anemone swallowing a fish. Maura exhales—might be contentment, might be impatience. It probably depends on the day, on the girl. She leans your forehead against her mother’s shoulder.
“Hi, Maura,” your mother says. Over her Maura’s shoulder, so, to you.
“Congratulations on the book.”
Her face does something bad, something like the feeling of watching another person walk precariously along the edge of a very high place. Don’t apologize, but also don’t put your fist in your mouth and bite your knuckles so you don’t apologize.
“It was hard to write.”
You could ask her about the advance, how much she’s going to make off it. Will you ask her about the advance?
She opens the door a little wider, as she turns her body and the version of yourself clasped against it toward the house. “Do you want to come in?”
Your mother looks back to you. When did her eyebrows turn gray? How have you missed these little details of her aging? “You haven’t been answering my calls,” she says mournfully. “I tried to tell you about it.”
This seems unlikely. You may not know everything about publishing, but you are fairly sure there is a long stretch of time between deciding to write a book and seeing it on shelves. Still, it is true that you haven’t been answering her calls.
You don’t say anything. Your mother’s face crumples up. She sighs. “Do I really make your life that hard?”
Sometimes, now that Maura is around more, you have to touch her, to relocate her hands away from something valuable, to catch the top of her head, keep Maura the sixth from knocking against the wall while she cries about flies that lay their eggs under living skin, cries because she’s afraid of rotting. What’s the name of that hole newborn babies have at the top of their heads? Fontanel, sounds like fountain. That soft place that your fingers could go in. The younger, smaller Mauras are the worst, the yous that are at the farthest end of the tether from you. You remember something you heard in a science class once, which may or may not be true, that the feeling you get when you find something cute lights up the same parts of your brain as the desire to crush.
What’s that disorder—or syndrome? condition? you should know the difference between these three words by now—with the women who make their children sick on purpose? It’s a German word, it sounds like a kind of sausage. There was that true crime show you saw a few years ago, about the terminally ill girl who killed her mother, and when they found her it turned out she didn’t have any of the diseases she was supposed to have and she was five years older than her mother’d told everyone she was. You’ve never been able to get out of that Wikipedia-diving habit. It’s supposed to be something a woman does because she likes the attention—like what people say about teenage girls cutting themselves. By the time you were seventeen, which was the first time anyone could have plausibly called your situation life-threatening, your binder was thick and heavy as a textbook, and the Sharpie had faded and been written over again. When you finally started managing your own appointments, how surprised you were to learn that there was hardly any paperwork at all.
But you’re not being fair. While it was happening, there was hardly any attention. While it was happening, a Xanax prescription would manifest periodically in your mother’s medicine cabinet, and then disappear, and then come back again. While it was happening, not even you could have accused your mother of enjoying a moment.
That first Maura, that ghost of your suicide attempt, ended up being one of the worst Mauras to have around. She was awful. You kept having to take your knives away from her. She bit her own knuckles until she bled, and the blood got on your sheets in thin pink streaks. She took all your roommate’s aspirin and threw them up next to the toilet. Every time she opened her mouth, she cried. You had to wonder if you were being punished. Did you believe in God, or karma, or any sort of divine intervention? Did it matter? You believed in your ability to deserve punishment. You kept having to take your hand away from your mouth, so that you would not bite into your fist like an apple. Maura left one of the kitchen knives on the counter, with her blood still on the tip. You walked in on her in your bedroom, up on one of your chairs and knotting your bedsheets around the ceiling fan. She looked at you, shiny-eyed. You looked back. Your bedsheets were patterned with little sailing ships, done in blue outline. You shook your head. “Seriously?”
You did ask your mother not to write about you. When you were sixteen, after your grandfather died, and you read what she wrote about him. The person he became on paper and the person she became on paper, too solid and too fragile at once. “Please don’t write about me,” you said after reading it, when she wanted you to say something kind. When you should have said something kind.
You don’t get to read the copy of her collection you bought. You learn that she wrote about this conversation, too, when you come home and find yourself sixteen, gritting outrage through your teeth and burning ripped pages over your stove. You snatch Maura back by the hair before she can burn herself. Your smoke alarm goes off.
Part of your job involves dealing with parents. And it is mostly mothers you deal with. Mothers who come to hand you paperwork, to complain to you about grades or detention like you can do anything about it, to shoot apologetic looks at you while they wait to pick up their unruly sons. They ask you where the coffee is, they remember your name and bring you chocolates at the end of the semesters. Some of them are your age; why is it that they sometimes feel like a different species? Like they’ve sprouted claws or a horn from the center of the head. You’d like to think you’d be a good mother.
Every year at the start of school the mothers come to give you medical forms, which is when you learn the fragilities of their children, their antibiotics, their antidepressants, their EpiPens. Maybe sometimes you want to say, Oh, escitalopram, I was on that too when I was ten. Would that be comforting, who knows? It’s also when the vaccine exemption forms are turned in, and you have to process those and not say anything. The women who hand these to you often look like your mother, waspish and WASPy. One of them has a button clipped to her purse strap that says “Mothers know best.”
A couple years ago you were visiting your mother—just for the afternoon, you only ever visit for the afternoon—and there was an anti-vax rally on local television, which you were watching instead of talking to each other. The reporter was talking about those parents who’d brought chickenpox back to California—brought, like they were carrying it on their backs, in their purses; in jugs, in jars, in BabyBjörns—your mother’s forehead kept scrunching up, making worry lines. “What?” you said. She chewed her lip. “What?”
“I wish they wouldn’t use that tone,” she said, and you restrained a scoff. Your mother gave you a baleful look, as if she’d seen the scorn on you anyway, and folded her hands up so tightly her knuckles went white.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Maura,” your mother said. Which was true, you didn’t. On the TV, a woman lifted her baby into the air, maybe so that the camera could see him, but for one absurdist second you thought she might toss him into the crowd. Your mother was quiet for a moment too long and you braced yourself, as you had learned to do against a certain kind of silence. You glanced around the kitchen for the remote, but couldn’t find it. Looking past you, at the screen, your mother murmured, “It’s terrible to have a child.”
You raised your hand to your mouth unthinkingly, the tips of your teeth resting against your knuckles. “Don’t do that, Maura,” your mother said. And she sighed, pressed her palm against her forehead. “I hate it when you do that.”
For a year or so, part of fifteen and part of sixteen, you would sometimes have crying jags so violent they made you throw up. Maura is on her knees on your bathroom floor. You’ve got an awkward fistful of her ponytail, strands of hair still falling ragged into her face, coated in bile. When she sobs, it convulses her body so badly that you can’t really tell when she’s gagging and when she’s not. You’re squatting with your own, smaller body seizing between your knees. “Jesus,” you hear yourself say. “Fuck.” The sounds she makes are like trying to drag a blunt knife through cloth. Ragged, tearing. There’s some puke on your sleeve. Take a deep breath. Resist the urge to bash her head forward into the toilet to make the sound stop. At least in the moments you want to hurt her you only want to hurt yourself. Say something comforting, in the silence between her hitching breaths. That’s what that silence is for. Come on, think of something comforting.
A week after your mother’s publication date, you’re on your eighth Maura. You’re pretty sure it’s your eighth. So, assuming one for every essay in the book, then at most you’ve got four Mauras left, right? You say that like you can safely assume anything, like you know how this works. You’re feeling soft on Maura eight. Or maybe you’re feeling guilty. Maybe there isn’t a difference. Do you think you’d make a good mother, Maura?
You take her to your favorite waffle place. Her favorite waffle place. You’ve outgrown your sweet tooth, but goddamn did you love those waffles. Your mother called a prohibition on them when you were fourteen, along with most sugars and fats. Your waistline was expanding, encroaching. You’ve always occupied too much space.
She gets a pecan streusel waffle, caramelized sugar crusted at its edges. What would you call this pleasure you feel at watching her dig in? Whatever the opposite of schadenfreude is. She’s got a little bit of whipped butter on the tip of her nose. A lot of the Mauras your mother sends you are sad, but not all of them are.
“Is this your daughter?” the waitress asks. Maura catches your eye over the lip of her orange juice glass. What a messy eater she is. You’d like to think you’d teach your daughter better manners than this. But then, your mother tried with you. Maura swigs back her orange juice, and then mouths, Old lady, in your direction.
While you’re asleep, Maura goes through your laptop. She’s gone by the time you wake up, you don’t even have to drive her home this time. But you pull open your computer in the morning and there are photos of you, photos of you beside your mother, photos of you beside your friends, photos of you from thirteen through today. She’s emailed three of your middle school friends, how did she even find their emails? You can hardly bear to read what she’s written except it starts with, I miss you, and then, throughout the paragraphs, Do you remember? Do you remember? Do you remember? She’s opened a bunch of your mother’s essays in your browser, left a comment on one calling her a bitch, which you delete. You don’t need that phone call. She’s been reading Wikipedia, has articles open with titles that look like the runup to a joke. Folie à deux, how a baby forms in the womb, the Freudian uncanny, Death of the Author. There’s definitely a punch line coming here.
Sometimes your mother calls you in the middle of the night. She doesn’t do it often. She does it just rarely enough that you can’t excuse not picking up. She could be stuck on the side of the road somewhere. She could be in the hospital. You’re estranged, but you are still a daughter. Something still happens in your rib cage when you think of your mother dead.
On most of these calls, she will talk to you like she hasn’t called you in the middle of the night. The neighbors’ health, your job, have you been to the local farmers’ market, have you had your flu shot, she’s doing the NAMI walk this year, have you thought about it, the cookies she’s making. Like it isn’t twelve-thirty, one, two. “Mom.” Does your voice waver? Maybe a little. “Mom. Mom. It’s the middle of the night.”
And she’ll sigh. She’ll say, “I feel like we never talk anymore.”
Once, though, last year, one-fifteen, you’d been having trouble getting to sleep anyway, holding a cup of tea between your cold palms, seven weeks since your boyfriend left you. Some of his stuff was still piled up by the door; was there something wrong with the way that closeness happened to you? So you couldn’t sleep.
And then your mother’s tear-stained voice on the phone, out of nowhere, like God saying, Yep.
You took a long, deep breath. “Are you all right?”
And she said: “Did I do enough for you, Maura? Could I have done more?”
“There is a syndrome called Capgras delusion, the sufferers of which believe, wholeheartedly, that a person they love has been replaced by someone else pretending to be them.” You’re lying on your back on the sofa, with the book held up above your head. You’ve shelled out another thirty dollars for a new copy. You’re reading aloud. Your mother’s author photo keeps winking at you from the inside cover whenever the pages sag to reveal it. She’s got her hair in one of those crown-type updos that you never learned how to do. You could’ve asked her to teach you. The ninth edition of you is lying on her stomach on the floor, chin resting on both her fists. She might be ten. This isn’t the kind of thing she should be hearing.
“It’s extraordinarily rare, usually comorbid with paranoid schizophrenia—comorbid is, by the way, the word they use to tell you your child is suffering from the symptoms of more than one disorder. It’s a word that sounds right. All around the world, there are myths about children replaced, changed, made wrong by some external force. The common horror of parents feeling that the thing they love most is not right.”
Maura’s started to cry. When you look down at her, her eyes are so shiny it’s a little like looking at a cartoon. “Shit.” Get off the couch, take her in your arms, let her huddle up to you. Her body is small and warm, soft and warm, you can feel each of her individual bones. That feeling that sweeps over you, like holding a friend’s baby, like holding a half-starved kitten, like feeling the articulated bones in a bird’s wing. “Hey, shh.” Swaying back and forth there on the floor, rocking her in your arms. Of course she’s crying, what did you think would happen? “Shh. It’ll be all right.”
Tuesday of the next week, you’re driving home from work and Maura is with you, which means that technically you’re driving her home from a school, the sun on both of your heads and the crossing guard smiling at you like you’re her mother. Maura the tenth is talkative, and that’s how you learn your mother was wrong about something. Because Maura’s fourteen and since you’re driving her home from school she’s talking about school and she starts talking about being bullied. She’s really specific about it too, she’s got this look like she’s trying to be casual but she wants you to be worried. You hate that look because you know that’s something you still do, where you’ll say something like it’s nothing, but you know it’s bad, and what you really want is for someone to say that it’s bad, to say that it’s awful. But Maura tilts her head like she’s talking out the window, and says that Ashley in her chemistry class called her a “saggy cunt.”
You stare at her.
“I’m just repeating it,” she says, folding her arms sullenly across her chest. Like you’re upset about her language. The thing is you don’t remember Ashley from your chemistry class but you’re pretty sure if someone had called you a saggy cunt when you were fourteen, or ever, you’d remember. It’s hard to ask Maura questions because at this age you were kind of a bitch but eventually you realize that your mother thought you were unhappy when you were fourteen because you were being bullied.
“Do you remember Mr. Shelbert?” you ask. She doesn’t, though, you can already tell. Your heart is doing something lovely in your chest, achieving liftoff. Your heart is singing.
When you were fourteen, a man who was sort of a neighbor, not on your street but two blocks from your street, burned down his house with his family inside. His family was a woman and a little girl. You cannot believe your mother forgot this. Or maybe just thought that it did not sink into you, even though she always called you a sensitive child. You’d never met the man, but you imagined that you met him. You assigned him faces and put him in crowds, like the devil.
Something in your chest came unhinged after that, and some silvery essence poured out of you, some faith that the world was basically good. What put you out of sorts when you were fourteen? You smelled smoke and could imagine that was what burning hair smelled like. Seeing people on the street, you kept wanting to unlock their faces and get at what was behind them. Bad things just happen sometimes. In the month after that you felt like the apple lying next to a rotten apple in the barrel, picking up its mold. Absolutely none of this is happy, there is nothing happy in this story, except that across from you with her brown little eyebrows drawn together, Maura doesn’t remember a word of it. Like she was written up by someone else.
It’s a surprise your mother didn’t remember Mr. Shelbert, really. That house burning, that would’ve made a nice backdrop. Thematically appropriate.
You buy a pregnancy test. You definitely aren’t pregnant. It’s been months since you had sex. Of late, especially, you haven’t been in the mood. Maura is still in the backseat of your car. There’s an essay in your mother’s collection titled “Gestation.” You buy the test anyway, take it home.
You pee on it, and a little on your fingers. Even if you were pregnant, a not-so-virgin Mary pushing out your own childhood, you could get an abortion. Maura is sitting on the edge of your bathtub. She’s eight and wearing her hair in braids you’re almost tempted to undo for her because you know your mother does them too tight. You imagine you’re at the park with a baby and someone points at Maura, the other Maura, and says, Oh, that one looks just like you. Obviously the pregnancy test is negative and you throw it away, and when Maura asks, “Why do you have to pee on it? Why don’t they have one for your mouth or something?” you ignore her. You’re not sure it’s ethically possible to justify having children right now, the weather is changing and the inhabitable land is shrinking, Congress has passed a bill that deregulates something, though you’ve already forgotten what and just how bad it is. Sometimes when you try to think about the future you have panic attacks. Is it fair to give a child what the world has left? But you do think you’d be an all right mother.
When you drop that tenth Maura off, your body is still tingling with not being fully known. After your mother sends her inside, she looks you up and down, takes in the longest breath, and lets it out in the longest sigh.
“Why can’t you just keep her for a day or two?” she says, shaking her head at you, like you’re heartless.
You’re not heartless. “I shouldn’t have to.”
Your mother opens her mouth.
A hand up to stop her. A long breath, in, out. “She isn’t mine, Mom.”
“She’s you.” Your mother’s eyes are your eyes are Maura’s eyes, big and hurt. She could look so pleading.
“We can’t both be me.” Why do you say it that way? In that way that leaves room for your selfhood to be displaced.
Your mother shakes her head at you. “Did you even read the essays?”
“I already know what happens in them.”
How’s this for a metaphor? You’re sitting at a table with your mother and each of you has one palm curled half around the white shell of an egg. The egg is organically perfect, round and smooth and cool as if it has just come out of the fridge. You want to put the egg whole in your mouth and swallow it, shell and all, let your throat swell like the body of a snake to accommodate it. Your mother keeps telling you that if you want the egg and she wants the egg that’s fine, things can still be fair. She’ll take her side, and you’ll take your side, and you’ll both just pull.
The hardest thing to explain to someone is something they should already know, so you’re trying to tell your mother why, like a baby, you can’t split an egg in two, but she gets up to walk away with her side and out spills the white-gold heart.
More a fable than a metaphor. Sometimes when you’re daydreaming you imagine writing one very long, important essay, to eat all your mother’s essays like a row of eggs. Maybe you don’t want to be a writer but you can still hook something clever on the end of a sentence. A story is like an egg, because—
No. A memory is like an egg—
No. When you have an egg in your hand—
You’re still thinking about it over a half-written email when you remember that there is a kind of egg that splits and when it does it makes a twin.
Only once, purposefully, did you make the mistake of reading the comments section under one of your mother’s essays. You know the universal laws of the internet; you don’t read comments sections. There is someone promoting a get-rich-quick scam, and someone saying that if you’re going to give your child psychiatric medication you might as well have them stick a fork in an electric socket, same brain damage. There’s also a woman who’s written, “Jeanne, thank you so much for writing this. It expresses so much I haven’t had words for about raising my son. So glad I found your work.”
It must be the eleventh Maura, the one where you wake up and you see yourself, your now self, your exactly yourself self, staring back at you with your eyes already open. You were wrong about the suiciding Maura, this one is the worst one. She walks half a foot behind you. She brushes your teeth while you brush your teeth, and when you spit into the sink she spits onto your bathroom floor. She finishes your box of Cheerios. She listens while you call in sick to work. She kicks her feet up on your table and sings your favorite songs, she logs in to your laptop and tweets about your headache.
Babies are born with all of their teeth already in their heads, wedged up high above their mouths in double rows. First the baby teeth come down, painfully, through the gums, and later their shadows follow them. The permanent teeth erupt and knock their used-up counterparts aside. They have both been there all along, side by side. This is the kind of thing you think about sometimes.
By the end of the day you want to scream at Maura. You want to grab her by the shoulders and buckle her. I’m alive, your body keeps trying to say, but no one’s listening. I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. I’m real.
You’re pretty sure you haven’t spoken when Maura swivels her head toward you, your head toward you. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Are you sure your version is the right version?”
The first and last time you tried to say something really profound to Maura, she was fifteen. This was well before the litany of selves. You were twenty-three, you’d just gotten your job at the school. You were younger, comparatively, though that is always true of the past. You wanted to get her away from your boyfriend, even if he didn’t seem to mind her, notice her, you didn’t like the past and the present breathing so close to each other. But you still wanted to be kind to her. You took her to the park. Like, what did you think you were doing, taking a fifteen-year-old to the park, but you just wanted to sit outside in the sun somewhere, and she sat on the bench beside you. This is true about you, Maura, that you wanted to be kind to her.
“Listen,” you said, “listen.” You put your hand on the upward jut of her shoulder. It quivered a little. She felt made of bones and bad eyewitness accounts. Her skin was warm through the cloth, which was warm from the sun. That was maybe the fourth Maura you’d ever gotten, and you were still astonished by the fact that she’d disappear sometime soon, sometime by the end of the day probably, and she’d go . . . wherever she went. Maybe she went nowhere, but she was there next to you then. “Listen,” you said. If you ever had a daughter, she might look like this.
“It’s going to be okay,” you said. Was that really all you could come up with? Was that the best you could do? But you didn’t have anything else. You couldn’t comfort this girl, and you weren’t sure you understood her any better than any adult understood any child. You only had the insufficiencies that you wanted to hear when you were fifteen, but that you wouldn’t’ve heard if someone said them. You are sure, at some point, your mother put her arms around your shoulders, rocked you against her chest, said, It’s going to be okay.
Maura bit her lip. You noticed, as she flicked her gaze upward, rolling her eyes without quite rolling her eyes, that the color of those eyes was lovely. The color of your eyes may, apparently, have always been lovely. Your self looked up at you like the wrong end of a joke. “Is that all?” she asked.
“Yes,” you had to admit. “Yes, that’s all.”
“This happened to me too.” That was what your mother said, the one time you yelled at her for the essays, which was after the one about your suicide attempt. You hadn’t yelled at your mother in years; it wasn’t productive. Knowing every action is documented, perhaps you have tried to restrain yourself to those you could account for. Yet you were crying on the phone, your hands were shaking, you were folding up the crumpled sheets that Maura had resigned to you after giving up trying to hang yourself with them. That’s what your mother said on the phone. “This happened to me too, Maura. You aren’t the only one this happened to.”
The last Maura of the collection arrives infant and squalling in your bed. You awake with her on your chest, like the warm bodily weight of a cat. You awake with her screaming in your ear. While you make your coffee, you rock her. And while you start the car, you sing to her. And you brush her little baby hair, so thin, so soft, out of her red baby face.
When your mother answers the door, you hold the baby out to her. Wrapped in your T-shirt so she won’t be naked, waving her little fist in the air. Your mother looks tired. “Maura,” she says.
You shake your head. “I can’t take care of this for you.”
Your mother bites her lip, the way Maura bites her lip, the way you bite your lip. She looks at you with fathomless sadness. “I’ve always loved you so much, Maura.” Her voice is damp. You’re not heartless. “I only ever wanted you to be happy.”
You hold the baby out again. Your arms ache from the small, squirming weight of her. Poor Maura. This smaller, poorer Maura. You wait for your mother to put her arms out, and wait. When she does, you lay the baby in them, and there is just a moment when you are both holding her, the hot aliveness of her, the newborn smell of her, between the two of you. You think of telling your mother that you’ve been considering having kids, lately. You think of asking your mother if you’d be a good mother. “I can’t hold this for you,” you say, instead. “This is yours.”
Excerpted from Fruiting Bodies: Stories. Copyright (c) 2022 by Kathryn Harlan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.