They seemed like accidents at first: Jacob’s heel in the soft tissue of her diaphragm, Harley’s head bouncing off her cheekbone. Perhaps I was tickling them too hard, Stella mused as she catalogued her new bruises after putting the boys to bed.
What parent didn’t have an inventory of accidental injuries inflicted by their offspring? Stella sometimes talked about them with the other moms and dads at the park: a black eye from a pitched ball too swiftly returned, a rolled ankle from a clumsy bump on the stairs, a pinched finger from a falling toy-box lid. After each story, the parents would laugh together in a reassuring way. Isn’t it funny, what these children do to us?
But the further the boys got from toddlerhood, the more calculated these mishaps seemed to be. Like Harley waiting for the exact moment her index finger landed on the jamb to slam the door. Or when Jacob abruptly dismounted from her shoulders, a limp lock of her hair still clutched in each hand.
“Ouch,” she would say gently, pointing to the blooming flush, or beading blood, or gathering film of pus, “that hurts Mama.” The boys would offer bashful smiles she once interpreted as apologetic, but now read as faintly joyful. “Ouch,” she’d say again, letting the pain creep into her voice a little. “That hurts.”
Stella asked her husband, “Are they hurting you?”
“The boys. Are they hurting you?”
“Hurting me? No.”
“They’re hurting me,” she said.
“You’re smaller than I am,” he said. “Maybe I just don’t notice it.” His work was waiting. Stella could always tell when he was done with a conversation.
She’d stopped telling the stories at the park as well. The reassuring laughter had long since faded to worried glances. The other parents’ expressions were no longer amused but sympathetic. They seemed to be avoiding her. Sometimes she caught Harley’s eye from across the playground. He wasn’t looking at her, not really. He was looking at her parts.
The boys hunted in the yard for spiders and worms to bring into her bed. Jacob found an injured bee with its stinger still intact and hid it in the sleeve of her sweater. There was something primal about their behavior, instinctual even. Before they learned to tie their shoes, the boys could loop the long silhouettes of their footie pajamas into nooses. When she took away their craft scissors, they chewed their nails to points, sharpened their teeth on the chipped ceramic edges of the bathtub.
The more she thought about it, the further back it went. Jacob’s shallow latch, pulling her nipples like taffy. The way Harley picked at her skin when she rocked him. How they seemed to divide up the night, each hungry in a different hour, so that she could never really rest.
Further back than that even: the morning sickness, the excessive weight gain — even for twins, the way they shifted around each other in her womb to rub their bones over her most vulnerable parts. For weeks they took turns kicking her ribs, one firing up just as the other drifted off to sleep. The obstetrician that inspected her busted bones said he’d never seen such symmetrical fractures.
And now they came at her with brightly painted blocks, with heavy-booted action figures, with splinters peeled from colored pencils. They ground sidewalk chalk to dust and blew it in her eyes, made trip wires from the strings of their toy guitars, perfected the art of delivering paper cuts with construction paper.
There was nothing they couldn’t use, couldn’t weaponize. Stella cut her hair short, wore long sleeves even in summer, but still the list of her wounds grew. There was no bit of her soft flesh or exposed skin that was safe.
What little was left of her they’d wipe away in time. After all, they were still only boys. They were getting smarter, stronger, bigger. She thought about it whenever she put food on their plates, when she dropped them off at school, when she took them to the dentist for regular cleanings. All the good things she did for them, they’d turn against her in the end.
She tried to remember what she used to look like — before the ill-healed broken nose, the twisted posture from her wobbly left knee, the half eyebrow lost to a flying birthday candle. She used to be pretty, she thought, but her sons would never know that. She saw their mother in the mirror: a lumpy monster with bloodshot eyes and thinning hair. If they loved her at all, she couldn’t see how.
But she told the boys she loved them often. More out of desperation than affection, for surely they must already know. If the warm meals and soft beds and bathing of dirty limbs and spoonfuls of medicine weren’t enough proof, then there were these: the stretchmarks, the crutches, the welts, the scabs, the scars, her crooked fingers, the destruction of the body as a memoir of her motherhood.
She must love them, she thought, and sometimes said out loud, to take all this and come for more. Who would do that, but a mother?
Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her stories, essays and graphic narratives have appeared in American Short Fiction, Black Warrior Review, The Florida Review, the New York Times and elsewhere. You can find her online at www.aubreyhirsch.com or follow her on twitter @aubreyhirsch.
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