Fiction by Jo Varnish
The first dead mother was mine. Fifty-eight years old and dead seven Tuesdays ago, not from an incurable disease, nor from a car accident. After making a cup of chamomile tea, she slipped on a piece of slimy maple ham. Her head hit either the sink or the tile floor—the coroner’s report was inconclusive—and passed away right there, the sliver of spoiled ham stuck to the underside of her bare, cracked heel like a punchline.
Soon after, another dead mother. I pulled miniature baby possums, tails bald, from their dead mother’s pouch as she lay spatchcocked in the street, cherry red blood seeping from her mouth onto the hot asphalt. I took those babies to the wildlife sanctuary, after flirting with the idea of keeping one, raising him in a dog crate, letting him sip from my glass of warm milk as we watch reruns of The Wonder Years. That’s the dead mother thing. The un-nurtured’s desire to nurture is a force as strong as love, as deep as loneliness. But I couldn’t keep one, I couldn’t take one from his siblings. All they had was each other.
Yesterday, a dead bird on my doorstep. Coincidence? Possibly. I mean, what has that got to do with the baby possums or the dead possum mother? It was still hot out, unseasonably so, although that’s an overused phrase, and if we must use it so much then it can’t be true anymore. It was really flipping hot, anyway. The bird was likely dehydrated. I kissed the air twice, as I do when I see any dead animal as my way of sending it off with a nice thought, with someone having cared. Truth be told, I regret starting the whole two kisses to the air thing. I can’t ever stop as that’d be cruel to the dead animals I see going forward, but it’s awkward sometimes when I forget myself and pause mid-sentence to kiss the air twice. I have to keep talking quickly, hope the person I’m talking with will think it was a spasm, or anything other than that I am blessing the souls of roadkill.
And now, I wake in the darkness. Maybe the bird has a nest somewhere. At this moment, maybe baby birds are faintly calling, their baby bird stomachs caving in painful hunger. I put on my coat, slide on my moccasins, and grab my flashlight. Outside, the cicadas do their thing and the electrical cables buzz along with them. I shine my flashlight around at random trees, but in its weak light, I can only see a few green leaves against the night. I consider digging up the dead bird to check the gender, but I don’t know what a bird’s parts even look like. Do birds have vaginas? I go back to bed.
It occurs to me over my buttered toast the following morning that the bird probably was indeed female. My dead mother is sending me other dead mothers to help. I’m not sure why. But other than the reason, it makes sense.
On the bus to work, I see a squirrel stiff at the edge of the street (kiss kiss) and arrive feeling rejuvenated. So many signs for me, so much love from my dead mother. I don’t mind admitting that at work, I’m not very important. I’m employed by the recreation department, taking in forms, putting check marks on paper, and typing certain words in a particular order.
“It’ll go down at the rate of one foot a day,” says Derrick, a more important employee.
“What will?” I haven’t been listening.
“The lake at Sheffield Park,” he says, shaking his head.
“They’re draining it?”
“We are, yes.”
My throat tightens. “What about the turtles and the fish in the lake?”
Derrick frowns and looks at me. “We’ve dragged it, got what we could. There’ll be some collateral damage. Nothing to worry about.”
The bus takes me to the north side of the park and from there I walk to the lake. The exposed lakebed is wide, maybe ten or twenty feet. I have maybe an hour before it gets too dark. I see no creatures in need and then a hundred remnants come into focus. Dead fish, huge shells—the swirly kind with a cone—heavy with solid cement instead of the slithery gel that should be within (lots of kisses). And then I see a turtle. I see its head sticking out from the thick damp sand. I dig around it with my hands, my nails pulling from my fingertips as they drag. It’s too late. I dig up a dead turtle. I go home in the twilight, my spirits low at not having a turtle friend-in-need with me.
I make a pot of chamomile tea, my mother’s favorite. I don’t actually like it, but the gentle smell brings my mother to mind. I sit at the table a few feet from where she lay that Tuesday. Not long before, we’d had a conversation about ways to die. I said you could die from a penny falling on you from the Empire State Building. Mom said that was twaddle.
“No one dies from a penny, no matter how far it fell,” she said. “Otherwise, people would do it all the time!”
“You think people want to kill people all the time?”
She’d laughed at that.
I miss her. I miss her humming to her jazz songs, the way she threw her hands to her cheeks when she gasped, the smell of her lasagnas and rosemary roast potatoes cooking as I got in from work.
My cell phone rings. It’s the sanctuary.
“You’d wanted updates on the possums? They’re fine. You’re welcome to stop by and see them?”
I tip the cooled tea down the sink, its aroma rising. I breathe it in. “Thank you, but I don’t think I will,” I say.