I stared at her until her features turned into mush. It was always that way in the dark, her face inches from mine, and so much larger, her breath soft and warm on my face. I’d squirm there in the dark, neurotic about how heavy my head must feel on her arm. Sometimes I’d quietly move it out of guilt, but other times I’d leave it there for hours to see if she would say anything. But she never did.
I stare at her until her features turn into mush. It was always that way in our living room, harsh yellow light sharp against her skin. Her features swirl around in the pool of her face, the glimmer of sweat on her forehead a souvenir from her walk home from work. The last few months of manning the local bakery had started to set in, leaving her cheek with an almost permanent flour stain and caking her dark hair with a penetrating doughy smell. I could feel the leftover croissant bags she walked in with eyeing me from beside our front door, witnessing how our two figures studied each other from opposite ends of the room.
My gaze was returned, and I could see she was biting at the insides of her mouth, every so often taking a breath as though to say something, before letting it out in abrupt sighs and gritting her teeth.
I try to look at her eyes, but it appears they were already looking through mine, sticking out of her skull like apprehensive vultures, perched on the caves of her dark circles, bursting to swoop in, claw out, chew up. The nose between them protruded, equally as condemning. It sat at the edge of its seat, waiting to sniff out, drill in, burn up. Her nostrils were flared, and I could see her collarbones rise and fall with every breath, shaking the small cross that hung from the chain between them. The pink goo behind my own eyeballs began to spin.
Some nights, as I lay there in the dark, I’d grow exceedingly aware of how small my body was relative to my mother’s. We’d be lying, one next to the other, and my feet would only just about reach her shins, my head tucked underneath hers.
I remember the nights she took me in like that and pulled me close, under the covers, to make sure I was warm and cosy. Protected. Snug. Nurtured. Untouchable… But it was the middle of summer. It was 40 degrees; I didn’t need to be attended to like that. Sometimes, it felt like she was trying to suffocate me. Sometimes she did, and I felt stifled and had to emerge, wake her up, arouse her from her slumber, stop the stifling warmth, pull the cover way down —below my belly button— and secure it in place with both my arms pinned on either side of my body. And I’d breathe again. And I’d sigh, realising how hot my cheeks are, how red my face must be, how it glowed red in the dark, a bizarre pearl in the womb of my room. She’d pull me in again, gentler this time, letting me be —so long as it was under her care. She’d always reach for me in her sleep, her massive limbs swallowing mine, almost hiding me completely. I can’t have been older than five or six.
When I first started school, we’d spend the first part of our mornings lined up and leaning against a fence, withering in the sun like dead flies on a windowsill, uniformed and still in our crooked single file. And there was my mum, across the playground, absolutely beaming, lingering long after all the other parents had left, to make sure I made it to my first class on time and that I was settling well.
She was the first to sign up for every parent-volunteer role imaginable. She never bothered anyone, and I often forgot she was there at all until I’d turn around mid-lunch when someone would point out how the canteen lady who suspiciously resembled me had been staring at the back of my head for the last twenty minutes.
Not even uni could stop her. If she couldn’t be there to make sure I was staying out of trouble, she made sure her warnings rang clear in my head no matter what. I’d collated a series of horror stories against everything —drinks from strangers, drinks from friends, drinks at all… It extended to dressing warm too, of course, and Covid only exacerbated this.
‘Put on a damn jumper, Jamilla, at the very least —please. You’re only hurting yourself.’
But there was a funny urgency in her voice I wished to further acquaint myself with, so I resisted. A jumper wasn’t going to stop me from catching the virus the same way her freshly squeezed orange juice every relentless morning wasn’t going to stop me from trying the drinks she’d vetoed years ago. I had a car now; there was no stopping me. I may have only driven about ten minutes away for a seventy-five cent soft serve, and I may have caught the leprosy she dreaded from a wholly different source many weeks later, but I’d set a new era in motion.
A new era that came crashing down when she decided what’s mine was hers the same way what’s hers was always mine —virus or not. She brought me soup in bed and regularly laid her hand on my forehead, breath held in anticipation, inner thermometer calculating, lips crocheting a soundless prayer. It was my first time seeing her cry. My forehead had told her fingers a number they didn’t like, and they took the heat and spurned a fire she contained until I was asleep. I woke up to the sound of her sniffling at the foot of my bed. I was so taken aback by this, I didn’t know what to do, and so I did nothing at all. I shifted slightly, feigning stirring, buried my head in the pillow face-first and went on pretending to be asleep…
So now I look at her. And now she looks at me. I don’t even really know what we’re fighting about, to be honest with you. This isn’t really about getting the job, or keeping it if I land it, or the late night shifts, or meeting Aidan again, or how he’s just like Thomas (and Thomas was just like dad), or how I didn’t consult her about either —or even about how I didn’t so much as tell her about them at all until they were both gone and I became a soppy, sobbing, wilting heap on my bedroom floor. I feel the distance swelling. I feel the distance between us grow, and I feel the distance between me and something else shrink, and I often can’t tell what it is. I can’t tell whether it’s my demise or my destiny, or whether either of those broad, vague terms really mean anything at all. Sometimes I want to scream and wrench myself away from her, leaving her empty, leaving her claw marks on me, claws severed finally, leaving nothing more than stumps, with deep, ever-raw gashes that bleed onto everything I put my own hands to. My bloodied hands. Literally red-handed. They’ll leave my fingerprints in the ink of her blood wherever I go, a stamp sealing the time the pearl broke the oyster that carried it so close. Warm and cosy, right? Protected? Snug? Nurtured? Untouchable? I vow to carry this guilt with me wherever I go.
But where to, big girl? I don’t want to go. Where else will I go? I can’t escape the thing I need to escape into the most —far, far from the beast that is this world, with its roaring engines and obscene fluorescent lights advertising cheap vanilla poison and charming, broken boys who flash their fangs at you in a smile and, in the next instant, are seen and heard no more, their faces foggy memories you could’ve easily conjured up one boring high school class you’re not sure you ever attended.
I used to think dying was the ultimate escape, but I now see how that isn’t an option for me. If the only memory I’ll live in is hers, I might as well live out here instead. I’ll live out here in a face like hers, with a nose like hers and hands like hers. We are the same down to our pinkies; they share the same swollen knuckle, the same inward bend. I’d hold onto hers with my own on the nights I’d been shaken awake with nightmares. They don’t feel that long ago. The nightmares certainly haven’t stopped, and they make me question whether I ever really grew past five or six.
I stare at her still. I look straight into the mush. There are signs of ageing in the mush, signs I’d never really noticed before. I let my eyes travel from the neck that never sagged like this to the lines on her forehead that only seemed to surface now. I did this to her. I did; I gave her one (just one, Jamilla?) too many nights of crying into her, one (are you sure?) too many arguments that ended with me getting my way anyway, one (million or so, it seems) too many heartbreaks when I’d look her in the eye and knowingly push her away. She never said anything then the same way she never said anything those summer nights as a child, when my head would get too heavy for her arm, when it would block the blood from flowing freely into her fingertips, when her entire arm would go numb but she’d stay silent so I could sleep comfortably.
At least she has laugh lines, right? She’d complained about those before, but I never really looked at them enough to scrutinise what she’d described as her face turning into leather. Seeing them now, I think her laugh lines are the most beautiful thing about her. I think they tell the brighter side of a darker story, like how laughing at her own horrible puns carried us through the ‘car-tastrophe’ that almost killed me last year, nearly robbing her of all she had. Seeing them now, I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t change the deep craters she has for dimples, or her thick dark brows that shoot up when telepathically communicating with me, or the warm brown of her eyes that she hated in her younger years compared to her sister’s bright viridian. I want to tell her that now. I want to speak into the mush I made of her, to tell her I’m sorry I’m the reason her eyes are more hungry than they are brown, even if it wouldn’t change much. Her eyes are not vultures; and they never were. Her eyes only ever looked in my direction to give. Her eyes withstand the pins and needles. Her eyes are glimpses across a crowded high school cafeteria. Her eyes are soup in bed. Her eyes are… flooding.
I don’t need the world to see that I’ve been the best I can be, but I don’t think I can stand to be where you don’t see me. And autumn comes when you’re not yet done with the summer passing by—*
And here comes winter too. And after it will come the spring, and yet another summer, and the temporary absence of warmth never meant there was none to begin with. It doesn’t mean there isn’t more to come.
Her hungry warm brown eyes continue to swell, and the distance between us shrinks. I take her in under the harsh yellow light of our living room, and I tuck her head under mine. She lets me feel the weight of her head on my shoulder, and I hold still, inviting the paresthesia… Mama, I don’t think I can stand to be where you don’t see me. The pink goo stops spinning.
*Lyrics are from Mitski’s ‘Francis Forever’, from her album Bury Me at Makeout Creek, released by Warner Chappell Music, Inc, 2014.
Karoul (Carol) Riyad is a second-year student doing a Bachelor of Linguistics and Language Sciences & Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Her piece ‘My Mother’s Daughter’ was considered ‘Highly Commended’ for the Future Leaders Writers Prize 2022.