Mother by Melissa Benton Barker



The miracle is obvious: I came from her a vernix cloaked pupa, and before that an invisible ovum, hooked inside, even when she was hooked inside her own mother, and so on, each of us held inside the other. We are always here. We come from nothing.

I imagine her death, like her own mother’s, an erasure: she’s in bed. Her eyes are open. Her eyes are closed. My son walks in and she calls him the name of my father. There it is, it’s true, the same wide eyes, square jaw. Me, I am no longer on her roster. I am hands, latex, cleaning solution, a soft voice, sometimes a sharp one. She lies in bed with her hair pinned back. She smells like oil and skin, skin like the sharp sweetness at the bottom of a plum where it’s gone too-ripe, brown. What smell is this? It can’t come soon enough. Her mouth opens and closes like a guppy, bursts of breath flap out as if escaped from the lip of a balloon.

This is what the mind does. It erases. It smooths just as the tide wipes words from sand.

What do you want to erase? What do you want to keep? You might not get to choose.

This was the way her mother went, and how I’ll go too, I imagine. We hold each other in our mouths, each swallowed by the other.


I took my son to the orthodontist. The waiting room was completely done in purple: walls, upholstery, even the pens, even the cupholder that held the pens. The office staff, all women, wore black and white business casual, so fashionable that it took a long time for me to understand they were dressed in uniforms. While we waited to be called, my son worked at a video console that had been fastened to the wall, and I watched HGTV on twin televisions mounted on either side of the room. I’d brought a book to read but, as usual, I took in what was on offer.

When it was our turn, we followed the technician past rows of children lying on their backs under bright lights with their mouths gaping open. The technician was pregnant, as was the orthodontist. My son lay back as directed and they adjusted the complicated structure of wires they’d assembled inside him. They screwed tiny bits of metal. This hurt, and I put down my phone so he could squeeze my hand.


Do you work? My mother did not work; as trained, she stayed home. She ironed uniforms. She ran when the dryer buzzed so the uniforms would not wrinkle. I sat on the thumping dryer while my mother ironed uniforms. Sizzle and starch and thump, the basement, the smell of metal and dust, the furnace. She lifted the iron and steam rose. She flipped over the khaki skin of my father, made a crease on the opposite side. She knew what to do. She knew how he liked it. She told me he went up and down the stairs at night, and out the door for other women. She told me how all along she was awake but she pretended to be sleeping. She wanted to teach me her best tool, how to pretend.


When my son was born, he looked like my father. When my son was born, I reached down and tore myself open. I opened like sheela-na-gig, a mouth as big as the world. I opened like the mouth of the world and my father came out of me. My husband and I wrapped him in pink and blue and strapped him in and brought him home from the hospital. My husband went back to work. My son turned red and opened his mouth and screamed at me with the face of my father. It’s true, he was only my father for a little while. I held his screaming mouth against my chest and watched out the front window while my husband stopped at the light. Then I watched his tail lights, as well as the car that came behind him.

I didn’t bathe. I couldn’t bathe because of the screaming. I never washed the birth off. I stayed in bed and taught myself how to nurse him, taught myself how to be a mother. My nipples bled and scabbed and then the scabs fell off and the skin beneath, once a vortex of pleasure, hardened into permanent callous. My cunt bled and wept where it had been cut open and sewn back together. Had it been screwed up right? My cunt was a smile full of braces. I could not walk. I fed myself to my son until he slept, and while he slept I watched Sex and the City.


My mother gave me a list of instructions, but it was not the one I wanted. When I grew old enough, I wanted a different mother, but you don’t always get the one you wanted. My son wanted a different mother too, and I told him he could box me up and return me. I told him about a warehouse where there were rows and rows of mothers, boxed up and blank like Barbies, waiting to be chosen. They were waiting for children to breathe into them, and you could make one to order, you could order it up just the way you wanted, and if it came out faulty, you could box it up and send it back again, order another. Like Amazon or Zappos, this place of mothers.

I shouldn’t have told this to my son. He was too young. With my words, I made a cat’s cradle for him to pull on his whole life. One thing would become another, but it would still be there, this ball of string, impossible to untangle. That’s what it is, to be a mother.




Melissa Benton Barker currently lives in Ohio with her family. Her fiction appears in LadyLibertyLit, Entropy, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net. She is working on her first collection of short fiction.


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