Alexis M Smith

When I was in college, I lived in a tiny apartment in the northwest part of town, near the trendy shops and restaurants. One night I woke up suddenly from a dream, full of dread. My bedroom window looked out onto a narrow, bricked courtyard where a single lamp post shone. For a while, I watched the door, where the shadows of two small japonicas, not quite in bloom, met in a troubling embrace. It was like one couldn’t decide whether or not to strangle the other.
  I had never been able to cope with the early hours after midnight.
I pushed back the covers and rose, searching the floor for my slippers. It was cold, and seemed colder in the dark, so I wrapped myself in a blanket. Twelve steps through the railroad flat and I was in the kitchen. Street lamps lit the room and my hand hovered over the light switch. I couldn’t decide: there would be the tremendous shock to the senses when the light flooded the place, and then all the murkiness of everything at that hour, lit by the fluorescence.
I didn’t turn on the light. The old refrigerator whimpered and sighed like a dreaming dog as I filled a glass by streetlight and turned to the window, to the narrow avenue crowded with apartments, the silvery glow on the trees and trash-tucked weeds.
As I raised the glass to my lips, there was a jarring knock on an apartment door just down the hall. Three firm knocks. I sputtered. Another human being, awake at that hour and steps away. I felt a jolt from some chamber of my heart. There was no safety in a knock on a door at that hour.
I set my glass on the counter and listened. Two breaths, three more knocks. It was the apartment across the hall and one down, occupied by another girl in her twenties, a hairdresser, who spent nights at her boyfriend’s. Who would knock on her door at three in the morning? Then it occurred to me: how did the visitor get into the secured building? I hadn’t heard the clatter of the entry, echoing up the stairwell; I hadn’t heard the buzz of the door lock releasing. Was it another tenant? How did I not hear them come down the stairs, adjacent to my own door and constantly creaking with the arthritis of old buildings?
Three more knocks, louder and sharper than the last, impatient. I decided then that the hand must be small, the knuckles narrow peaks. The ball-peen hammer of a woman’s fist.
I gathered the blanket around my shoulders and shuffled across the living room to the door. I heard the rustle of cloth, and imagined her arm dropping to her side. A faceless she, waiting for her knock to be answered, to be invited in. I tried to imagine how tall she was, her figure, the shape of her face, her hair color—anything to convince myself that there was nothing to worry about, but all I could venture was a spring jacket, something light and long—brushing the knees—like a trench coat, or what my mother would call a Mackintosh. Then came her footsteps and that same rustle of cloth toward my door. I flattened myself to it and held my breath. I wondered which way the footsteps would go: up to the second floor, or down the short flight to the entry. I would know, then, where she came from, where she was going. The feet fell consistently, firmly on the floorboards, until they reached my door. I reached defensively for the knob, and there was the slightest rattle when the weight of my hand fell on it. Abrupt silence followed. She had stopped. We were both listening.
Who are you afraid of? You are supposed to be here, I told myself. Who is this woman, stalking the halls of your building in the wee hours?
I pressed my ear to the door. The familiar creak of the stairs—up or down—never came. The door below did not clatter open or slam behind her. Though I thought I heard, once again, briefly, the airy movement of the Mackintosh (which by then I imagined was pale blue and dirty around the wrists, exactly like the one my mother owned). But after, my own pumping blood and unsteady breath were all I could hear.
I strained to hear her in the quiet for some time. Nothing. She must still be out there. No one could move so quietly in this building where we all knew when someone showered or cooked fish. Had she pulled off her shoes and crept silently to another floor? Was she waiting for me to look? Was she waiting for me to open the door? When I finally lifted my head to peer through the peephole, my breath snagged in my throat: the hall was empty.

I told my mother about the incident, some days later. I had been waking around three o’clock every morning since, imagining I heard the knocking again, but on my own door. It rattled me from dreams, and left a ringing in my head, but when I tip-toed to the door, it always rested quiet and cold in its frame. After a few days of this, I wasn’t frightened. But in my normal waking hours I began to feel forlorn whenever I crossed the threshold of my apartment. I was sleep deprived, I told myself. After the long bus ride out to my mother’s apartment in the suburbs, I was chattier than usual. I told her everything. I even told her about the Mackintosh.
“It was so strange,” I said, nervous, “I imagined the girl wearing that old blue Mackintosh of yours—remember?—the one you bought in Scotland?”
She still had the coat, I was sure, she held onto everything. She bought the coat when she was my age, and had worn it all through my childhood, until her middle-aged body rejected it. She had been a celebrated scholar (she reminded me often) of archeology; she had unearthed a bog baby on the moors. Her very own bog baby, sacrificed (some said) centuries before and mummified in the peat. She was the envy of all the other scholars. It was rare to find a bog person at all, let alone a baby. When I was young she would tell the story of my birth in tandem with the story of the dig on the heath, the moment of her great discovery. She recalled the musk of leather and shit, and I never knew whether she was talking about me or the bog baby.
We were sitting across from each other at her kitchen table. I watched her for a reaction, but my mother’s face always bore the same placidly disappointed look, as if the earth had offered up its final treasure to her years ago. “Where is my bog baby now?” this look of hers asked. She cocked her head.
“I didn’t sleep at all after that,” I finished, leaning back in my chair.
“Well,” she said. Then she sighed and began picking dead leaves from the spider plants next to the window, all sprouting even more spider plants that she would eventually repot. There were spider plants in every window of the house, their grassy, variegated legs dangling over every surface, even the frosted tissue box of a window in the shower, where the shaggy creatures hoarded shampoo bottles. After an uncomfortable time had passed, she looked up.
“Louise Bourgeois was an insomniac and she sure got a lot done,” she said, and stood to wash her coffee cup in the sink.
“I’m not an insomniac,” I said, crushing a dried spindle of leaf to dust between my palms.
“Some people don’t need sleep,” she shrugged. She moved the sponge around the inside of the cup and stared through the houseplants in the kitchen window, out over the trimmed lawn of the complex and beyond, to the property line where the wilderness clawed at the landscaping. I could trace her thoughts as they delved the soil outside; I had heard some variation on the same time-space reverie before: …ice age, Missoula Flood, river basin, temperate coniferous rain forest, migratory hunter-gatherers, the winter villages of the Atfalati people, the lodges of the McKenzie fur traders, logging camps, the decimation of the Kalapuya tribes, European settlements, homesteads, farms, the removal of the remaining Indigenous population to Grand Ronde, and so on, till the suburban apartment complexes, strip malls, big box stores, and McMansions… She rinsed her cup for a full minute, steam rising from the sink and her scalded hands.
I felt gratified that I had invoked this spell with the Mackintosh, then a jab of regret. My mother was no celebrated scholar now, not a professional or a professor. She worked with the elderly. Her clients were childless widows and spinsters with no one to look in on them. Women she referred to as “the Aunties.” She visited a different Auntie five, sometimes six, days a week, including holidays. I was usually in-tow on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and even Valentine’s Day. I learned how to hide my terror. Biologically they were human, but to my young eyes, they were the stuff of fairy tales. When they offered candy, I pocketed it and slipped it into the ashtray in the back seat of the car later. When they took my hand and smiled lovingly at me, I tried to love them back, if only so they wouldn’t eat me.
Occasionally my mother would arrive after a few days to find one of the Aunties dead, gone sour and sunken like forgotten fruit. You always call the ambulance, no matter how obvious the expiration, and my mother said this was a damn shame. She wanted to dress them in nice things, from the backs of their closets, and put on their good shoes, like they were going out for their last, best game of bingo. She had a legal document, signed and notarized, that expressly demanded that I do as much with her fresh corpse. When I had asked her what I should dress her in she had said, “Oh, I won’t care; I’ll be long gone. Have fun with it.”
I watched her at the sink, wondering if I should dress her in the Mackintosh when the time came.
She roused herself and put the cup in the drainer, turned off the water and wiped her hands on a towel. She picked a jam jar from the window sill and set it on the table in front of me. An adolescent spider plant bobbed in murky water.
“You should take a plant,” she said, “I can’t bring myself to kill the babies.”
“They’re not babies, Mom. It’s asexual reproduction. They’re clones. The same plant, over and over again.”
My mother looked at me pityingly and shook her head.
She left the room, hunting tennis shoes for our walk around the man-made lagoon, where the blue herons were nesting again. I eyed the jar in front of me. Green slivers sprung from the lip. A skein of pale roots netted the glass, seeking a dark place.

I graduated from art school that summer. The recession was on, so I took the first job the temp agency offered me, at the American Biscuit Company. My alarm would go off at 2:30 in the morning, five days a week. I took a quick shower, put in my ear buds and rode my bike north to the peninsula at the delta of the city’s two rivers. Factories, steel fabricators, and petroleum depots hemmed the houses and schools and parks within. Viewed from above, the peninsula looked like a singed, quilted oven mitt. American Biscuit was the biggest bakery in the city, baking off and packaging popular national brands like Etiquette Crackers and Counter Top Cupcakes. On dry days, when the winds blew from the northwest, neighborhoods four miles away smelled like muffins. I started on the packaging line, making decent money for temp work. Two years later I was first shift supervisor of the Oven.
I never hated it, despite my mother’s increasing bafflement. My friends tended bars and waited tables and worked at record stores. Those were acceptable jobs for Bachelors of Arts—or even Masters of Arts. Their tattoos and dyed hair were their uniforms. I wore a papery white coat and booties; I came home dusted with a fine, sweet powder. I belonged in a nursery rhyme.
“You should see the cupcakes,” I told her, “all lined up in the packaging line every day like a Damien Hirst. Chocolate, strawberry, yellow; chocolate, strawberry, yellow.”
“‘Yellow’ isn’t a flavor,” she said.
“‘Yellow’ is a flavor,” I told her. “It’s Flavor 79-A2. I’m not supposed to know, but it’s mostly vanillin and limonene.”
“You smell like marshmallows,” she complained.
The aroma never left my hair or my skin, no matter what kind of soap I used.

My mother told me I would be an artist when I was very small. It was a dream, planted in her head the day she realized her cycle had stopped, and there were clusters of cells becoming human-shaped inside her. Merle Boleyn, the surrealist painter and writer, was a visiting lecturer at the University that year, and she wanted to see “the fen girl,” my mother’s discovery. After three quarters of an hour staring at the tanned, dehydrated babe from all sides, her long silver hair draped around her, Boleyn turned to my mother with tears in her eyes. “A leanbh mo chroí,” she whispered, child of my heart, “every womb is a wormhole.”
She was seventy-seven, and my mother was twenty-four. They never met again, but my mother felt a tug inside—buried between the heart and the navel—a drawing outward, whenever she thought of what Boleyn said to her. She sought out Boleyn’s work and studied it, took notes in a cloth-bound journal which she read to me after I was born, like a book of fairy tales. Boleyn wrote a treatise on reincarnation. She recited poems in dead languages to blindfolded audiences. She painted portraits of herself through the centuries, in historic dress, being tortured, beheaded, and burned at the stake, then birthed again by future iterations of herself. My mother the scholar would soon give birth to me, and in doing so, she would become another version of herself.
As for the facts of my conception, my mother treated me as if I were the natural outcome of a liberated young woman traveling abroad in the 1970’s. My paternity cast aside, it was the story of Merle Boleyn I knew by heart, as if she had brought about my existence, like a witch with whom my mother had struck a bargain. After their fateful encounter, I slipped through the wormhole into this world from god knows where. From the darkness. From the bog.
“But where will you paint?” my mother would fret, standing in one of my efficiency kitchens, in one of my dioramas of an apartment. There was exasperation in her voice, and despair—fear, even—as if, after all, the bargain would not be kept.

One night my mother called me as I biked home from a party. I stopped at the curb near a Catholic church to answer. One of the Aunties had died the previous month, and she had gone to help her nieces—her actual kin—clean out the house. She did all the unpleasant jobs: the old panty sorting, and the garbage can scrubbing, and the hauling to the thrift store, while the middle-aged nieces from California had pecked and squawked at each other like gulls over the few precious tidbits. That night my mother had stayed late to clean in silence while the nieces went out for dinner.
“I found something,” she told me, an echo of the young archeologist in her voice. “Where are you? Come over.”
When I rolled up to the little saltbox, it was familiar to me, though I had never met this particular Auntie. Small and tidy and contained, windows lit; the lawn was knee-high and aglow with fallen maple blossoms, like an Easter basket full of candy.
I hopped off my bike and carried it onto the porch. My mother opened the door abruptly and ushered me in.
“Hurry,” she said, “Before they get back.”
She took my wrist softly in her hand and led me down the hall to the dead Auntie’s bedroom. In the closet was a trap door to a narrow attic under the eaves, barely more than a crawl space. I climbed up on a chair after my mother, then onto the short, creaky ladder rigged to the door. The floorboards were warped planks laid over the ceiling beams that rocked side to side with our weight. I sneezed twice before my eyes adjusted to the flashlight pointed at the far side of the space. There was something in the corner gleaming through the darkness and dust. My mother skittered over as quickly as she could and squatted there.
“Over here. Come on,” she beckoned.
I tipped myself forward to avoid the slope of roof and joined her.
“What is it?”
I squatted precariously on the weft of a plank. It was a half-gallon jar, full of amber liquid, frothy at the top, like beer. My mother had picked it up, I could tell, because her fingerprints were all over the layer of dust on it. She reached out and shook it. Something bobbed through the soup toward the glass.
“There’s something in there,” I said, reaching out to brush more dust from the jar. It looked like a biological specimen, an organ. My mother lifted the jar to my face. The organ teetered and effervesced in the murk. It looked like a misshapen heart with two rangy arms, outstretched.
“It’s a heart?” I asked.
My mother scoffed. “It’s a uterus.”
Then she laughed with such mirth—more than I thought she had in her.

Downstairs Mom made tea. She showed me a portrait of the dead Auntie when she was a girl, in the nineteen-thirties, all white lace and bows like a child bride—First Communion—Mom sneered. Then snapshots at my age, in the Fifties, bushy eyebrows and rhinestone glasses that came back in vogue briefly when I was in high school. Mom was carefully stowing all the memorabilia into labeled shoe boxes for the nieces. We sipped our tea, the pictures spread out on the table.
“In ancient Greece,” Mom said, “they believed that the uterus could move throughout a woman’s body, wreaking havoc on all the body’s systems. The ‘wandering uterus,’ they called it. Pregnancy was the cure. A hysterectomy was a death sentence.”
“I’ve read Freud, Mom. I just don’t understand why she kept it.”
She rose to throw her tea bag in the trash.
“Some things become more terrifying when you try to forget them,” she said.

The next week I signed a rental agreement with the nieces. They returned to California to wait out the recession and the lousy housing market. I promised them I would keep the flowerbeds weeded and scrape off the peeling wall paper, put up fresh coats of paint. We watched them drive away in their rental, then began unloading Mom’s station wagon full of my things. Inside, Mom brought out a few boxes of things she had pretended to donate (in case the nieces threw a fit): tea towels and vases and a frayed paperback called The Cookbook for Poor Poets & Others by Ann Rogers. She put all of these things back in the drawers and cupboards they had lived in before.
“A place for everything and everything in its place,” she said, winking at me.
I looked at her saucer-eyed and we both laughed. The uterus was still in the attic, tucked away by the chimney.
We were giddy together for the first time in decades. Like when I was much younger and one of the Aunties would give me a suitcase or shopping bag full of her old clothes for dress-up. Mom would make us cups of strong Scottish tea with milk and sugar, and we would go through the clothes deliberately, one piece at a time. I tried on everything, however large or grotesque. Sometimes the Aunties gave me slips and braziers and nylons with holes in the crotch; sometimes they gave me costume jewelry in violet pastille tins, and nubs of ancient, waxy lipstick. Mom would stand behind me before the tall mirror at the end of the hall as we looked at my small body in the Aunties’ clothes. She would toss her head back and laugh low and long, her eyes full of tears.
I picked up the cookbook and thumbed through a few pages. There were specks of béchamel sauce on the page for Welsh rarebit, smudges of the Auntie’s fingerprints.
“Was she a poet?” I asked, looking up at my mother balanced on a step stool to hang a spider plant in the kitchen window.
“Auntie Ramona. Was she a poet?”
“Oh, maybe in spirit. She answered phones for Daimler for fifty years.” She climbed down and eyed the plant, swaying over the sink. “She was lonely, anyway,” she said, plucking a dead leaf.

Weary, Mom drove home late. She was spry, but fraying at the edges, beginning to show signs I had watched her watching in the Aunties. I kissed her at the door and made sure she turned on her headlights. I caught my own reflection in all the dark windows as I walked through the house.
I half-brushed my teeth, made the bed and crawled between the sheets in my underwear. Even my old bed felt bigger, my feet stretching towards the corners I couldn’t reach. I tried sleeping, but I couldn’t reset my internal clock. It measured time, just like other clocks, but the sun and the moon were in opposite positions. My eyelids drifted up whenever I lowered them. I stared around the room. The opened boxes heaped around my bed looked like a family of animals. Bears, maybe. Mama bear, baby bear, baby bear.
I wondered whether wild animals ate the uteruses of their prey, and whether they savored it, like one might a heart, or whether they gorged on the uterus ravenously along with all the other tender bits? Or maybe they saved it. Maybe they left it behind as an offering, like our cats did the bloody pebbles of mouse organs on our doorstep?
I reached for the lamp, and a notebook and pen from my bedside drawer. I propped myself up and drew the she-bear and her babies until morning. Cloudy, weak light and generic birdsong lulled me to sleep.

I went on like this for some time—about a year—living in the Auntie’s saltbox, waking at 2:30 A.M. and biking to work at the bakery, staying up on my nights off to draw until morning. More and more drawings every day, and then I painted. Always landscapes with animals and women, sometimes dancing, sometimes eating each other. And then I painted the scenes on the walls, until I was surrounded by a wilderness. A deep green summer of wilderness, a wilderness with no hibernation.
Then one day I woke to a knocking at my door. It threw me from a vacant sleep, ringing in my ears. I looked around the room and listened for the quiet neighborhood, all the workers still working, the wind in the trees outside the open window. I felt the chill of recent rain and heard the knocking again. I said to myself, mail carrier, and then, looking at the clock, realizing the mail usually comes late morning: Mormon, environmentalists, Girl Scouts. And as I lay there, adrenaline draining away, willing them to go away, the knock came again, familiar this time. The Mackintosh. I threw back the blankets, and ran down the hall to the door—warm feet on cold wood, heavy-headed—and halted in the living room. Would she knock again? That insistent clockclockclock. I crept to the door and put my ear up to it. I had no peephole, and no reliable window from which to peek without sticking my whole head out. I heard the movement of cloth, shifting weight on the boards of the porch. Then a hand on the doorknob, testing the latch, the shudder of its weight in my palm.
“Who’s there?!” I screamed, voice cracking. Silence. No reply, only a flutter, and a persistent drip as the tension on the knob released. In a flood of panic and courage—she couldn’t slip away, not again—I yanked open the door.
The sudden glare off the wet street blinded me. Behind my eyelids I saw the ragged outline of myself, a bright white-eyed face with an open, gaping mouth, a topaz aura sinking into an murky abyss, the hot ammonia of her breath on my cheeks. I opened my eyes. Of course she was gone. Only a filthy puddle at my feet.

On Mother’s Day I stayed awake all night and into the morning, then I took the bus out to my mother’s townhouse for brunch. I brought my notebook full of she-bears, wrapped in brown paper and ribbon. The weeping began before she opened it. I stood behind her at the table, to see what she saw. She sniffled and I pulled a crooked dried leaf from her tangled gray curls. She lingered over each drawing, turning the pages carefully, slowly. As she progressed through the notebook, her tears dried. She inhaled each breath though her mouth and held it, then exhaled short, raspy sighs through her nose. I couldn’t see her face or her expression. Finally she spoke.
“They’re eating… hearts?” she asked, bewildered, not looking at me.
I leaned over to see her face, a yawning ache in my chest. Her brow was furrowed; she didn’t remember our night in the attic, her final discovery. She had been forgetting lots of things like this, moments we shared, and probably ones we didn’t, ones that preceded me, dark apertures where her life should be. Wormholes. Later, I would sneak into her bedoom while she brushed her hair and teeth; I would make sure the Mackintosh was still there; I would pull it over my shoulders and feels its weight, slip my hands into the empty pockets, then return it to the hanger at the back of the closet.
“Yes, Ma,” I said, smoothing her hair. “Hearts.”

Alexis M Smith is the author of the novels Glaciers and Marrow Island, a winner of a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Her short fiction and other writings have appeared in The Portland Monthly, Tarpaulin Sky, Bon Appétit, and The Portlan Review. She lives in Spokane, where she works for Spokane Public Radio and teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.

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