“Mothers and Daughters”
by Marta Murvosh
My mother struggles against the white padded straps. Tying her to the bed is the only way I can stop her. The only way I can to travel beyond the borders she has drawn for me.
“You know what you must do, Jocelyn.” Her once-cheery voice rasps. Her death is near. “It’s the best thing for you.”
Fatigue cuts lines into her face, but her eyes blaze bright. A vise squeezes my brain, starting at my ears and pushing inward as her mind pounds through our connection. The pain overwhelms my womb’s constant ache. “I know what you need, Jocelyn.”
My name is hers and a constant reminder of family obligation. I strain against her oily, cloying love. “No.”
Her voice drops to a calm, reasonable tone. “Kill me, Jocelyn.”
I scream. I try but fail to push her from my head.
“Untie me. Give me a knife. I’ll make the first cut. Your instincts will take over, my dear.”
My taste buds swell in anticipation of her juicy belly meat. Saliva fills my mouth. I lick my lips and swallow. The basement walls are thick. No neighbors will hear her scream. My feet slip forward until my hands rest on her belly. I don’t need a knife. I have fingernails. “No”
“It would be my last gift to you.”
Her cool skin under my fingertips brings me back to my rational self.
Stumbling backward, I pull my eyes from her stomach to the porcelain glow of her face. She smiles victorious. I have her skin. Its smooth texture fascinates my lover but Seth doesn’t see that I wear the same beautiful, deceptive mask that hides the monster. My mother, my cousins, myself, and my entire family are all monsters. I’m the only one who hates what we are.
I take in the Spartan basement furnished with only her metal bed. On the other side of the space, the water heater and furnace are tucked under the stairs. She has nothing to use for escape. I prepared this room when her mind wasn’t paying attention to me. She can’t always watch.
“If you don’t bear a daughter, our line will die.” She uses the voice of sweet reason.
“Would that be so bad?” The pressure builds in my head and throbs in my womb. “Think about what you do to me.”
“This job has given you strange ideas. I should have put my mind down on your dreams, moving here, away from family, away from the people who care about you, who know what’s right.”
I love writing code but it’s not why I don’t want to get pregnant. I never wanted a child, but she chooses to not remember, to not hear. She goes on and on, retracing the lines on the map of family obligation. In my family, only one child is born, a daughter, to each mother. It’s how we’ve always been going back to the first mother and her daughters.
“I don’t want to force you to do what needs to be done,” she says. “I could call your cousins.”
I shudder. I put an entire continent between mother and I and the rest of the family when I took this job.
Suddenly, she relaxes her grip. “I trust you to do what’s right.”
My mind stretches, shakes. I run, my shoes ringing on the metal stairs. Her words follow. “I only want what’s best for you, dear.”
Your acquaintances in high school complained about their parental snooping. Your mother had no need to riffle through dressers, computers or phones. She merely pawed through your head.
I slide a narrow needle though the foil of an unopened packet and the condom inside. I inspect the crinkly square. The hole is invisible. Mother taught me this trick.
My womb pines for conception. I huff with the sharp pain of ovulation. Fifth time this morning. My hands clench. A sharp stab of the needle piercing my palm forces me to realize what I—no, mother—is doing. “Stop it!”
Her control compresses around my skull. Mentally, she begs me. Conceive, kill her, end her pain, end her worry, and repeat the cycle. I smell violence, blood and torn bowel. My mouth waters. A quick cut and scoop out the organ that connects us. With one swallow, I can destroy that link.
Purposefully I clench my hand around the needle. Sharp, bright, beautiful agony. Her hold relaxes.
Did the pain cut me free?
The bitter scent of spermicide burns my nostrils. Packets cover the kitchen table. I sweep every useless condom into the trash.
How can I not want a daughter? Someone as beautiful as me.
The thought comes so clear I know it’s not mine. I push the needle into my other hand. I grab my keys and leave the house.
“I just want to be normal,” I tell my car as I turn the ignition key. I still taste her sickly-sweet influence.
I know I’m missing something. I know life is more than the narrow path my family has walked generation upon generation. I want to explore my potential. I want so much, but no map exists to get me where I yearn to be.
You tried to find a gynecologist to sterilize you. In four years you’ve seen twelve doctors. All told you: You’re too young. You’ll change your mind. Two recommended a therapist.
I lay flat, deaf and blind to everything except Seth’s warmth blanketing my back. His hands play with my hair and brush my cheeks. His fingers find the path left by my tears.
“What’s wrong?” He murmurs against my ear. His voice comes from far away, beyond a border I cannot cross. I shrug. He rolls us over, tucking me against him. “You okay?”
Seth’s brown eyes narrow. He knows me better than is safe. After a long moment, my voice cracks around words. “My mother wants… family to visit.”
“Do you want me there?” he asks.
My fear must show for he moves away and says, “Never mind.”
I pull on my clothing and leave. I wish he could meet my family. But my cousins would only see him as sperm. And I am keeping my mother in my basement.
You don’t understand why sometimes mother touches your mind lightly and sometimes clamps you into place. You tried drink, drugs, pain. Fortunately, she leaves your mind during sex.
Seth calls me the next day and apologizes for pushing. I apologize for my inability to open up. See, normal isn’t hard.
I meet him at his house after work. Dinner smells good. He smells better.
After we eat, I hold him down until the sheets smell like the two of us. Seth hums and snuggles me against his chest.
Could he help me run from her? How would I explain?
“You can tell me anything.” His voice is all concern.
No, I can’t. “My mother insists family visit. I…”
He must hear the vehemence and fear in my voice. He loosens his arms. I sigh in relief.
“I was a girl…” My words stop, frozen with memories. The screams. The oppression radiating from the basement in our old Colonial. The exultant cry.
Afterward, mother made me clean up the blood and body parts. I couldn’t tell what was from my aunt or my cousin’s lover. My family gets away with it because there’re people who no one cares about when they go missing.
After the birth, my mother forced me to watch as that cousin nibbled the placenta from her daughter’s face. Each swallowed mouthful of caul connected my cousin to her daughter. Watching, I shook in the grip of my mother’s oozing love.
“It’s your house.” Seth rubs my shoulders. “Pay for a hotel. Or stay here. Let me help.”
For the first time since I met him, I am not desperate to conceive. I wonder if this is love.
The first time you drug your mother, her touch slipped away like scummy water draining from a tub. Giddy, you bought a plane ticket. You swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills in the terminal. It wasn’t enough. You woke screaming after take-off. You don’t remember what happened afterward. Seth bailed you out. That’s when you knew he cared.
Mother’s skin rests on her bones. Her body looks weak. Her will is not and it presses into me. “All of us feel like you do at one time or another. That will all change once you conceive, once you connect with your unborn daughter.”
When did the fabric bonds holding her to the bed grow so frayed? Her fingernails are broken, bloodied. “You must kill me. Only I can give you the nourishment and strength you need.”
Tears burn in my eyes. Hers glow an intense green with her desire for a granddaughter. I find my voice. “No, I won’t.”
My middle cramps with ovulation. I want to take a knife and carve out my ovaries. Cramping, I double over.
Like delicate fingers wielding a mapmaker’s pen, my mother slips her will into the connection between us. She scratches, scrapes, and marks up the flimsy border protecting my mind.
Her will maps over the cartography of my soul. My ovaries and uterus unfurl, blossoming. Seth, so understanding. I fumble for the phone and dial. I’ll need him here. For after.
The call goes to voicemail. Reprieve.
Mother’s love coats me. She only wants what’s best.
I should have asked Seth for help. I should have had him tie me up and drive me across the country no matter how much I screamed. I could have trusted him to drive and drive until the bond snapped. I should have done something, anything else.
My phone falls. I hear glass break.
My hands ache to loosen her bonds. Free. Free…
I stumble and fall.
Free, Seth asked what he could do to free me. I wish I knew.
I drop into myself, hoping to find the answer. I’m in my belly where the connection between mother and me lives.
I imagine myself ripping, pulling, scraping, unraveling, tearing apart the map she has made. Obliterating the borders she set.
Can I cut her out? Can I cut myself free? With what? My fingernails? I think of Seth and I remember the broken glass of my phone.
My hands scrabble over the cold concrete until my fingers close on a very sharp piece. I tear off my shirt, rip open my belt.
I plunge the glass sharp into my belly.
Now, it’s her turn to say, “No!”
I worry at the thick tissue. I will be my own cartographer. I will erase the lines she made.
I scrape away at her marks. I carve my choices. I draw my path. I make my own journey.
Her love slides away, and I am free.
Marta Murvosh‘s short fiction appears in the 2017 anthology Tales of the Sunrise Lands: an Anthology of Japanese Fantasy” and in the 2008 anthology Legends of the Mountain State, Ghostly Tales from West Virginia. Her nonfiction publication credits include trade magazines and several daily newspapers. She is a teen librarian in northwestern Washington. Learn more at murvosh.weebly.com.