by Sylvia Warren
I cannot let strangers into my house. What is inside is too difficult to explain, too grotesque, but you must understand I am still her mother, and I still love her. I have raised her for eighteen years, and she was always the sweetest child. My daughter. Each door on the hallway has a lock, her windows are shuttered day and night, there are heavy curtains on the front door and every day, sometimes twice, I have to mop the wooden floors around the house in case of deliveries. Thankfully, the isolation has largely stopped the flow of cards and visitors, but some still arrive unannounced, curious or concerned.
She’d been a long time in coming, despite my ex-husband and I trying religiously, but when she came she was perfect. I did take time off work for Ava, put my career slightly on hold, but when she was five I got back into academia and we moved to a slightly bigger house in the city. When she was fourteen I got a new position at a different university, and we uprooted our life to go to a new town. We settled in well, although this place was a little more industrial than what we were used to. My husband got himself some satisfactory consulting positions, I started picking up a better set of lecture courses, and Ava was doing well at her new school. Most evenings when I got back to the house there were multiple sets of school bags on the landing, empty plates with toast crumbs and knives balanced on the edge of the sink, and a firmly closed bedroom door. We were, I suppose, perfectly happy.
Every morning I leave the house to buy three newspapers – I prefer the broadsheets, and so the move to a smaller size has caused some difficulties. I used to be able to get away with two. There is a newsagent a few minutes’ walk away, and the man behind the counter has given up on making his normal joke that I must be a journalist of some sort. I fix a smile to my face by default, pay with cash, use the change to buy a coffee and spend a few minutes reading. There is rarely good news. This morning the waitress spilt my coffee when she was setting it down and it soaked through the top sheets, rippling the pages and making the ink bleed into itself. I assured her that it was not her fault, just one of those things, but I picked up a replacement copy from the rack by the counter and slipped it into my bag as I left. It is difficult to think of such things as theft, when you know how much they are needed. When I get back to the house I go directly to Ava’s room and pick up yesterday’s newspapers from the floor. Some of the pages are thick with crusting white splashes, and there is a sour smell in the darkness. I can’t see her clearly today, which is a relief. This sensation catches in my throat, a quiet disgust at both myself and what my life has become. I wonder if she can still hear me, understand my expressions as a daughter would. Closing her door behind me, I take the bag of crumpled paper and push it into the rubbish bins outside, go into my study and start to mark essays.
It started so slowly that to try to pinpoint when it went beyond a slight worry is difficult. She had a growth spurt and parts of her skin turned purple and grey, bruise-like. We asked about bullying – her friends were not coming over as frequently – but she assured us that there was nothing like that going on. After that conversation people turned up every Thursday, almost as though she was putting on a show for her father and me. She began eating seeds and fruit, eschewing most fresh meat, which was a fairly fashionable activity but in hindsight could have been a precursor to who my daughter is now. What she is now. There is a sharp call from her room.
You can buy insects online in bulk, they are delivered in heavily wrapped packages that squirm under the taped edges. One cupboard in my kitchen is filled with these, plump white larvae that crawl over each other in a morass of nudging heads. Mixed seeds from the health shop, and as a special treat a visit to a bin outside the fried chicken shop. I do not look like the sort of woman who rifles through refuse for half-eaten burgers and the greasy remnants of polystyrene. I do it early in the morning when only the street cleaners and the people who sleep rough are awake, my university lanyard swinging obscenely as I pull out the remnants of last night’s drunken feasts into a plastic bag. I use a lot of rubber gloves, another thing I never expected to do when I was a younger woman. It makes me think about how much we are meant to do for our children, us mothers. It got too much for my husband quite quickly, when he realised that this was not a phase or something that could be cured with a course of antibiotics or surgery. It’s not that we didn’t try, of course There were weeks of tests and surgical excisions and treatment regimens, but if anything, it seemed to accelerate the changes. Then I came back from a conference and his clothes were gone, his books were gone, and he was gone. He had left his keys on my desk, there wasn’t even a note. The last I heard from him was through a lawyer. I do not feel that I have that luxury, to become absent – what would become of her if I wasn’t there to keep and protect her? I have lost within myself the ability to feel anger at the man for leaving, sadness that he has forgotten that Ava is also his child. I try to pull them up from my heart but they slip like water through my fingers.
I think of this as I put down the scoops of larvae and seeds in a bowl on the floor. My hands are dry. Ava is perched on top of her old wardrobe, pale in the dark. “You okay, love?” I don’t know why I persist in talking to her, I know she’s not going to respond. Silence feels worse. Her limbs are very thin, the bones hollowed and filled with a matrix that does not provide the strength needed to let me hold her without hurting her. Back when this was almost in its final stages, her voice still present if barely, I broke her ribs. It was a mistake, she was scared and crying, her eyes rimmed with a permanent rough red, and I just wanted to comfort her with a hug, but I broke her. She didn’t have the words to say what had happened, just flapped loosely, her chest ragged with its lesions and now also a strange wrongness to the shape that shone through the other changes. My first instinct was to hold her, stroke her hair, but that was what had done this new harm and every part of me was fighting myself to damage her further. Back in the room, her dark eyes glitter and she hops down, cocks her head to one side and begins to eat, her throat bobbing with each plump larva that she sucks down.
The essays are largely mediocre. It’s coming up to the end of term, and I can sense the tiredness in the students’ arguments. They are the sort of work that you produce out of a lack of time and mental energy. Perhaps they reflect my teaching at the moment. I spend so much of my time keeping the two parts of my life separate that I end up lacking the ability to do either to my full ability. I take the feelings of guilt and inadequacy and dress them up in ironed blouses and sensible shoes until I am beyond reproach. Some women do not like the point in their lives where they become invisible, but I have found it a profound relief. I do not know if I could be Ava’s mother if I were under the public’s constant observation. I mark my students’ work generously, but with a mind to the external examiners. They peck away at any perceived bias, but how can they know my brood? They can’t know the undercurrents that do not warrant an official dispensation, as though heartbreak or hunger or familial trouble is immediately easier than a death in the extended family? Each document flows into each other until it is time for me to sleep, after checking on Ava one last time.
I painted the window frames shut when we first came to the arrangement about her room. She is curled up, her head cushioned on a bent arm. Her breath sounds like bubbles surfacing from a stream, and I stroke her downy head. She coos softly in her sleep, like she did when she was a baby. There are marks around the window again, where she clings to the frame when I am working. I must buy some more paint before the weekend, I must keep her safe. Walking to my own bedroom I notice the acrid white and grey faeces that stuck to my shoes, but tonight I cannot face washing the hall again.
The knock comes when I am making my morning coffee. I have ordered some more supplies for Ava, but when I open the front door it is not the delivery man but Andrew, one of my colleagues. He walks in, already talking about the syllabus, when he sees the guano trodden across the hall, the open container of writhing maggots on the kitchen counter. His face registers disgust, and Ava bobs out of her room. The plumes that burst out of her skin, never quite healing, are ragged like the rest of the pigeons in the city. Her feet have scaled, the nails growing long and pointed, impervious to manicures. Her red eyes seem to stay still as she bends her head in different directions to get a better look at our unexpected guest. The markings that started as bruises have spread into a deep iridescent pigmentation across her chest and around the tops of her thighs, and the few flight feathers that she has grown well are hardened and ringed with scabs where her human skin lacks the correct follicles. There is a silence. I cannot let strangers into my house, but he is here, and he has come here voluntarily. There is only one explanation. “This is my daughter. This is Ava.”
About the Author:
Sylvia Warren is writer and academic editor. Her fiction has been published in Open Pen, ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ, The Arsonista, and more. She has been longlisted for the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Award. She is also a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine and the literary features writer for OX Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @sylvswarren.
Image: Ingersoll Committee via Wikimedia Commons (cc)