Rebeccah von Schlieffen
I could always smell the rain coming. It smelled like hot chrome and fresh earth, the thunder and lightning it brought drowning out the cries of the cicadas. When I smelled the rain, I thought about Janet. I thought about the black plastic bag on the bookshelf, sandwiched between The Last Battle and The Great Divorce. When I smelled the rain, I stood at the window, waiting to forget.
My mother is an outline, a shadow, a burst of orange like a picture that spent too much time in the sun. In my memory other people are clear but she is not, as though she had a different expiration date and has already dissolved into herself. But I remember her hands. That summer, my mother's hands spent hours teaching me about the power of knots. On Thursdays, for cross-stitch, we used knots to tie off the lines. When I finished a section of the pattern I was working on, my mother's hands showed me how to knot the thread over and over, so it would never slip through the cloth. And with the knots that gathered in my hair, her hands tried to be gentle, but never were. I always cried before my hair ran once more smoothly down my back.
My mother was beautiful. I never understood why I, her daughter, should be so unlike her. I decided God must have given her all of his beauty. By the time he got to me, there wasn't any left. My brother Robert had her coloring, but no one had her eyes: Such a glacial blue, her eyes were almost white. Father told us they weren't really eyes at all but stars on loan from God. When she was happy, her eyes would sparkle like those in the nighttime summer sky. Once I asked my mother why Robert never had to stay inside on Thursdays. Why he always got to go to Skate Country with his friend Christopher or to the Tucson Mall. When I asked my mother this question, her eyes sparkled. "Because there's something special about mothers and daughters," she said.
We didn't always do cross-stitch on Thursdays. Sometimes we baked. We baked peanut butter cookies and snicker doodles, brownies and devil's food cake. We softened butter and cracked eggs on the sides of bowls. When we baked I knew company was coming. Company was always one of the women my mother counseled at the Christian Center for the Needy where she volunteered three times a week. The first woman, Elaine, came only once.
Elaine was very thin. Her jean skirt and faded tank top hung haphazardly from her frame, like if she moved too much, they would slip off altogether, leaving her naked before us and the eyes of God. On her forehead was a long, deep scar like the scratch from a nail. She didn't say a single word when she came to visit, just picked at the scabs on her arms as her eyes flitted from the waxed plants to the antique mantelpiece clock, then back to us. Elaine made me feel uncomfortable. She even frightened me a little. But not my mother. My mother simply held out a tray of chocolate dipped macaroons and said, "We're so happy to welcome you into our home."
The second woman, Rhonda, came several times that summer. She always brought her children with her, a girl and two twin boys, their dirty t-shirts creeping up over their stomachs. While my mother listened to Rhonda complain about their father, the children grabbed chocolate chip cookies off the table by the handful. They ran to the corner of the room and stuffed the cookies into their mouths, glaring at me with chocolate smeared faces like they were afraid I might come and try to snatch them back.
The third woman who came was Janet.
Sometimes clouds rushed in before the rain. They darkened the sky, making the houses and gravel lawns seem almost sinister in the afternoon heat. Sometimes the rain came out of nowhere. The warm drops fell from clear skies as though dripping directly from the sun. Those were my favorite days. To rush outside in my terry cloth shorts under clear, storming skies.
Janet was beautiful in a different way than my mother. If my mother's beauty was alabaster and petal pink, then Janet's was teal and fire engine red. Although I never came close enough to know for sure, her skin looked like it would be hot to the touch. She wasn't like the other women. She was neither fat nor thin, neither quiet nor loud. But there was another difference. The other women came because my mother invited them. She offered, and they took. But when Janet came, she came to give.
On her Thursdays, Janet walked unannounced through the door wearing clothes in bright colors that shouldn't have matched her red hair, but somehow always did. Her lavender perfume filled the room and lingered for a while after she had left. If anyone else had come in like this my mother would have politely mentioned it. "It's always nice to see you, but I'd prefer it if you'd knock." But Janet's sudden entrance never felt strange. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Once inside, Janet always handed my mother a gift. The gifts, wrapped in red paper, were something that had once belonged to her: An eye shadow kit with eighteen different colors, some grooved with use, others untouched; an orange and red backless dress; a pair of platform sandals, a design of the moon and stars in glitter on the sides. My mother would open the packages carefully, folding the paper afterward like she was saving it for later use. She would hold up the gift then thank Janet whose face turned the same color as her hair. It was only then that we finally sat down and had some cake.
My mother always threw the gifts away once Janet had left. When I asked her why, she shrugged. "What would we do with such things?" Secretly, I snuck one of the platform sandals out of the trash, hiding it afterwards in a box at the back of my closet. When I knew I was alone, I would take the shoe out of its hiding place and trace my fingers across the moon and stars, the glitter coming off on my hands.
My father always prayed before dinner in a deep voice that was surely pleasing to God. Once I snuck a carrot before prayers. I took a small bite and slipped the rest under my tongue. When my father asked the Lord to bless our meal, I was sure the carrot would be magically transformed. But when I tried the rest it tasted exactly the same as it had before. I was disappointed. I looked at my mother's eyes, those two stars on loan, and felt instantly better. In my life before Janet, my mother's eyes were still enough to convince me there was magic in the world.
Some things are predictable. They happen again and again until you know what to expect. But not the storms. No matter how long you live in a place with monsoon season, the storms will sometimes be unexpected.
One Thursday, Janet came in the rain. The rush of the storm was so sudden she reached our house in a blinded blur, her windshield wipers useless against the waves of water pouring down from the sky. She ran through the door, her red hair pasted against her face and her dress against her body.
My mother offered Janet a towel and dry clothes, and she disappeared into my parent's bedroom to change. She walked into the living room a few minutes later in my mother's short-sleeved turtleneck and corduroy skirt, her hair wrapped up in a towel. Smiling, she lifted a black plastic bag out of her purse. "I brought something special today."
Inside the bag was a square-shaped gift wrapped in the usual red paper. But it was different. The package was vibrating slightly, letting off a hum almost too low for human ears. My mother hesitated. She stared at the gift as though she were worried at any moment it might burst into flames. I thought for a minute she would refuse to take it but then she did, severing the tape with her nails.
Inside the package was a record with a white label inside a white paper jacket; the black words printed on the label were written in a language I didn't recognize. The humming intensified. Again, my mother hesitated. I was sure she would put it back into the bag and throw it away when Janet left. But Janet smiled and nodded. "Go on," she said. My mother slipped the record out of its jacket.
The record was made of no ordinary black vinyl; it was electric blue, the lines and grooves on its surface glinting silver. As my mother held it in her hands, a light spread across the living room, creeping over the glass-topped table and dried flower arrangements. The light got brighter and brighter, taking up more and more space, until it had covered the entire room.
We stood in a circle, surrounded by a bright white light as though in the center of a star. The record hovered in the middle. It started spinning faster and faster until it transformed into a whirlwind of electric blue.
The whirlwind swirled over to Janet. It inched up her body, erasing my mother's clothes, erasing the lines of who she was. When it had finished, we saw what lay beneath her skin. Nerves and tissues, blood pumping, synapses firing, some fast, some slow, but all in constant motion: A perfect biological timepiece. The whirlwind inched up her body once more and, again, we saw what lay beneath. Inside Janet's body was an entire universe: Comets, moons and planets, some dark and cold, others teeming with life. But the hottest, strongest star was her heart. Everything revolved around it, its heat a thousand times more intense than the sun's. When I saw her heart, I wanted to be Janet, to wrap myself inside her, our bodies fusing into one. With our star strong heart, we would go out into the world and love. Nothing could stop us.
The blue whirlwind moved on.
On Antarctica they say it rarely snows, but it also never thaws. Even the smallest hill of ice is generations old. When the whirlwind inched up my mother's body, we saw she was an Antarctica; it chipped away at the impacted snow. With each layer, an image was released of a girl, lying naked in the forest. Her clothes and shoes had been flung to the side, her right arm draped across her chest, her eyes open and unblinking.
But she wasn't dead.
Chip: Flowers bloomed and faded. Chip: Leaves turned orange and budded green. Chip: Snowflakes drifted over her, settling to the right or to the left. Her clothes and shoes became faded and frayed. Only the girl stayed the same, never moving. Nothing could touch her.
The images started coming faster. Chip, chip, chip. Touch your hair and you will know it's hers. They came faster and faster until the question "Did it really happen?" lost all relevance. Chip, chip, chip. Look in the mirror. There, in your eyes, is her form in miniature.
When the whirlwind reached my mother's heart, we saw it wasn't a heart at all. It was a nuclear core of memory, a holding tank of forgotten things. If the whirlwind thawed my mother's heart, the girl would dress herself in moss and leaves and walk out of the forest. She would set free a flood of misplaced memory and bring life back into the world. My mother's two stars on loan were the key. The whirlwind swirled into them, their near whiteness turning into electric blue flames.
But then everything stopped. She had closed her eyes.
The rain streaked across the sliding glass door while my mother slipped the electric blue record back into its jacket. She put it in the black plastic bag and placed it between two books on the highest shelf of the bookcase.
She smoothed down her skirt. "Janet, can we please talk in the other room. Now." Janet followed her into the kitchen. I listened at the door while they talked, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. They walked into my parent's bedroom, and all I heard was the rain. When Janet came into the living room a few minutes later she was in her wet clothes again, her damp hair lying limp across her back. She opened the door and walked back out into the storm without saying goodbye. I never saw her again.
Animals came out with the rain. Earthworms writhed across flooded sidewalks, dancing out the pattern of their holes. Rattlesnakes slept curled up on people's doorsteps, waiting to greet them in the morning. Fire ants raided kitchens in search of dry places. Frogs crossed Ina Road by the hundreds and many got hit, the asphalt slick with their bodies.
That night, when my father prayed at dinner, I shoved my fists into my eyes, hoping I could see the whirlwind of electric blue. But all I saw were red lines and purple dots. I wanted my mother to say something, to prove it had really happened, but she stayed silent. My father talked about his day and Robert asked if he could go to Lake Powell next week with his friend Christopher. But my mother just sat there. I tried looking at her eyes, hoping they would offer relief as they had before, but they didn't seem as magical. When she got the cups of rice pudding out of the refrigerator, my mother finally said something:
"Why don't you take the pineapple upside down cake with you to work tomorrow. Today I made too much."
But sometimes the rain was dangerous. Flash floods came out of nowhere, whipping through the man-made washes. Our parents warned us not to play there, but we ignored them. We ran down the concrete walls onto the sandy bottom and, sometimes, we were swept away. That's what happened to Shannon Dwight. Shannon Dwight, who always wore a pair of little gold earrings that had belonged to her grandmother, tumbled over and over through the rushing water until it finally stole her breath.
At first, my mother faded in small ways. Her edges softened as though there were a filter around her body. She started losing dimension. On some days she was no more than a cardboard cut-out, like if I blew too hard, she would simply drift away. Her eyes got darker and darker until one day they were an ordinary gray.
I wanted to tell my mother not to throw away the record, as she had the other things, but I couldn't do it. When I watched television, I would rush into the living room during the commercials, sure she had finally gotten rid of it. But the record was always there, in the black bag, peeking out between two books by C.S. Lewis.
I snuck the record into my bed a couple of times, staring at it with a flashlight under the covers. As far as I could tell, it was just a record, its only strangeness the irregular color of the vinyl. Once, I even played it. I set it up on my record player with the sound turned down low, but all I heard was a lone woman's voice, speaking in some foreign tongue.
Only in the rain, when I let a monsoon storm rush over my body, did I feel any sort of satisfaction. My brother Robert knew, but he didn't understand. We were home alone one day, watching Scooby Doo, when I felt a storm starting. I jumped up and stood in front of the window, ready to rush outside once it came.
"What are you doing?" Robert squinted up at me.
"I need to run in the rain."
"Why would you want to do something dumb like that?"
Robert rolled his eyes. "I'm telling mom." If he did, I never knew, because she never said a word about it.
But sometimes the rain was dangerous. Lightning struck trees on Mount Lemmon, leaving zigzag scars along their bark. It struck the surface of pools, electrifying the water and anything in it. It struck television antennas and peoples' cars. It struck sixteen-year-old Frances Jacobson dead. When they found her, they saw she had bitten off her tongue.
The stronger my longing got, the more my mother faded. On some days whole limbs were missing; on others, her body was misty and transparent. One Thursday, when we were making ginger snaps, I walked straight through her. I went over to the counter for a cup of sugar and suddenly I was drifting in the clouds. A few seconds later I walked out and saw her from the other side, reading the recipe and stirring. By refusing to remember, my mother was being erased from life.
Rhonda came to visit with her children. I could see the pattern of the couch through my mother's body while Rhonda complained about the children's father. I wanted to stand up and shout: This can't be happening! How could I believe in such a mundane world when I had had a glimpse at something so many times more wonderful? But I didn't do it. Instead I crossed my legs and smiled sweetly at Rhonda's daughter, who bared her chocolate-smeared teeth and growled.
That night, in bed, I imagined the whirlwind had had the chance to inch up my body. For the first time, I touched myself.
One Thursday, two weeks before the new school year, my mother went out and run errands. Robert was at the mall, and I told her I wanted to stay home alone.
"Are you sure?" she asked. I told her that I was.
When she left, I ran into the desert, the black plastic bag under my arm. I slipped the record from its jacket and lay it at the base of a Saguaro, with six waxy white flowers crowning it's head. My mother got back from her errands, and we worked together on a new cross-stitch pattern, a rainbow in the clouds. When I made a row of careful stiches in blue thread, I imagined the whirlwind had been released, its light transforming the cactus wrens and tarantula hawks as it spread out across the desert. I pricked my finger with the needle. Three drops of blood fell onto the canvas. My mother frowned. "You need to be more careful."
When we finished, I told my mother I wanted to go to my friend Tricia's, who lived in the cul-de-sac around the corner. I ran back to the desert, tossing off my flip flops so I could run faster, ignoring the searing heat of the sand. The long arms of the cactus were in the distance. I was so close.
And then I saw it.
The label had slid down from the middle, warped sides of the sun-softened vinyl partially covered with sand. The record held no secrets, no whirlwind to transform me. I felt so angry and betrayed I wanted to smash the record and scatter the broken pieces all over the ground. But I didn't do it. Instead I dug a hole and buried it under the Saguaro. I turned around and walked back to my mother, leaving the record for the ants.
That was then. This is now.
And I am not close to my father or my brother. Our lives are very different. We can for go years without seeing each other. When we do talk, our voices are gentle and well-worn, like an old pair of leather slippers you dig out from under the bed. "There they are," you say. But not my mother. In my mother's voice, when we talk, all I hear is sadness; an ordinary sadness, if there is such a thing.
In my memory, my mother never looks into the camera. She always looks to the side, over her shoulder, at the ground. My mother spent so much time remembering to forget and forgetting to remember, in the end she forgot herself.
But I remember. I remember Janet. In my memory, Janet's hair was dark, not red. She had a small, star-shaped scar above her lip and smelled of jasmine, not lavender. In my memory, I was always Janet.
There never was a time I didn't know I was brought into this world to love.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, the writer Rebeccah von Schlieffen
has lived in Berlin since 1999. She's had work published in PANK
and in Verdad
under her maiden name, Rebeccah Dean, and is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.