In my last life I was plain. I wiped and polished my mother’s wooden house because there was nothing else for me to do. Beeswax was my perfume and I kept my bare face low. I wrapped my head up in ponderous braids to protect it from my mother’s swagger stick. The stick she told me belonged to an army officer who defiled her as the war was being lost. While he flattened her bones, and pressed goodness out her heart, her left hand found the stick and she pushed it up her sleeve. Her praying fingers got her a wand but she didn’t wish for me. On my birthdays she would take me to the hinterland that spreads behind her church to the green and grey place of her defilement. I do not know my father but she will never let me forget him.
If I could have known my mother before the day she had a stick up her sleeve then I might have liked her.
She’s taken it badly, of course, this new me. Who will shine the wood? She has a robin’s belly and her legs are spavined while I am laughing as I write promises to myself. I WILL NEVER HOLD A DUSTER AGAIN. Made it part of my recovery. The first time I tried to form letters my brain and hand could not dance together. I struggled for months to make the shapes on the page say what I wanted them to say. Now I can write I WILL NEVER HOLD A DUSTER AGAIN as well as you, as well as anybody.
I don’t remember the accident. My first new memory is of my mother being told there was nothing more to be done. I listened, curious to know if she could weep. She said nothing and she could not weep. When they noticed I was alive, when they watched me take five independent breaths it was a nurse who made noises like a mother. I grew to love that nurse. Her voice hauled me back to the shore of life when I was but a fish with still gills. Ida was her name and her fingers were soft and light. She showed me how determination can move as a gentle thing. She flushed my occluded tubes and did not curse me for being blocked. Told me the day and the date and described the weather like a fisherman. Sang me English love songs without any proof I understood English, or love. She would not let my corneas dry out and she shaved my legs though they had never been shaved before.
My mother visited during Lenten and Ida pumped me full of dextrose solution so I could have sugar in my veins as my mother sat humped by my bedside and scowled at my existence. My mother lived on dry things only eatable after a long drowning. On doctors’ orders I was allowed only pappy food but Ida pushed streusel crumbs between my lips so I could enjoy sweetness on my tongue. Irked, my mother left us to go and soak pulses and beans and Ida said to me, Your mental world has deep roots in your mother’s medieval past and then she plucked my eyebrows. Told me when my head healed I should shake out my hair. She got sense into me with gentleness. She had no mouth stones, no stick. This is my shot at renaissance I thought. It was the new sense thinking. I was covered in the patina of my mother but Ida was nursing me back to my very first shriek so I could develop into myself.
Ida and the other nurses loved to laugh, so I amused, and their delight and attentions brought me out. Ida taught me about rouge and quoted Goethe at me, das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan. The eternal feminine draws us upward. When I recovered my speech I did not ask her what this meant. I felt what it meant. Decided to be beautiful for the fun of it. Discovered it was funny to affright my mother.
Now, I am back in our wooden house again and some things haven’t changed. My mother’s rocker remains in the garden facing the fox nailed to the fence. She’s still at the gate to check for marks of gold and silver on the things the jackdaw man brings. But, the swagger stick’s mine now. And how slender and unbending we both are. I know how to survive my mother these days. When she gets that look in her eye I babble like a mad monkey. I jabber right into her face and she lets me be, mumbling I am not the daughter she thought I was. I will never have children for I am so afraid of damaging them that I know for certain that I will damage them. I won’t polish again. I will employ a happy bright boy to do it and have my mother say danke schon to him as he comes and goes.
I should tell you that Ida, my beloved nurse, is dead. Her own blood turned against her and I couldn’t save her. Blood is powerful. I was with her as she died and she is with me as I live. I can hear her laughter as I go outside to tell my mother that I will not be attending church on Septuagesima Sunday because I am meeting my lover in the hinterland fields for a picnic and two bottles of wine. I look around me, drinking up my world. Our front garden is a pageant of sexuality with my scarlet and black frills waving freely on the washing line as my mother rocks and reads old books full of guilt and page lice.
Do I live happily ever after?
Who knows? That’s how it is with a new life.
You have to let it get old, and see.
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Shauna Mackay lives in north east England and received her MA in creative writing from the University of Northumbria. Her pushcart nominated story, Bapoto, can be found at animalliterarymagazine.com