The Speed of the Living + Mother, False
Tara Isabel Zambrano
The Speed of the Living
It was late at night when my mother died, my brother and I didn’t cry because she had been sick too long, we paced back and forth after the doctor left and the nurses wheeled out the blank monitors, my brother claimed he saw our mother move—a flicker in her eye, a twitch around her mouth, No way, I said, Shh… he placed a finger on my lips and stalled like statues we glared hot on her see-through skin as if it were supposed to make her warm with a pulse, jerk her bones into a gesture, until he walked out to make arrangements for the body, I swiped apps on phone, posted a younger picture of her on Twitter—RIP mom, she looked deceptively soft because I knew she had a jackhammer of a will, her teeth so straight I forgot I hadn’t eaten the whole day, she didn’t eat before she died, because her tongue that fathered us after dad left could not form any more questions or give answers to fill us up, the likes and comments on her photo−a currency I had never accumulated before on my own from strangers who commented she was in a better place, I pressed my sneakers harder into the phenyl-coated tiles, they squeaked like police cars turning around a corner, chasing a ghost in the city swollen with humidity when my hand palmed the faux leather of the chair it felt like wet skin, and I wondered if I always disappointed my mother and now she was gone where would I be—sad and guilty I didn’t know why this whole time the television had been on with men and women who argued about forest fires and the melting glaciers, illegal immigrants and women’s rights, their faces drowned in makeup and despair, detailed with—I want to love somebody, something, I want someone to want me, while my mother’s lips were chapped and pale she might have freaked out to see herself without proper makeup so I pulled out a hot coral stick from my purse, a bit shrill, tapped it on her lips and to dab the excess a tissue from the box on the bedside table but it came out without a smudge—that’s how I realized how numb death was, there was no telltale red of a kiss only quiet pouring out of a mouth indifferent to the speed of the hungry, gnarly world.
I grow overnight after my mother dies—two extra hands emerge from my back, like the Hindu goddess Durga. My forehead is lashed with lines, my mother’s curses roll on the surface of my tongue. They fall and clog the drains. My extra hands work as a plunger, extend to the fridge to pick items, fan air on humid days. I start wearing my mother’s clothes, her oversized frocks and her stained apron, my eyes deliberately keen like a hawk’s. From the park bench, I watch my siblings: the six-year-old and the toddler on the swing, up and down the slides, the teenager on the monkey bars. They laugh and run, there’s love in their voices but not enough to call me Ma.
Most nights, my father falls asleep on the couch, an empty bag of potato chips crunching under his frame. TV on, volume down. Sometimes he pours a double scotch, sips and watches the twisted branches of the banyan in the patio, the hinged wings of the warbler. The front door is always unlatched because he goes out and comes in at odd times. I start calling him by his name.
Dyas splinter. All my hands smell of garlic and garam masala, fingers curved inwards because of constantly holding things. We haven’t been out of monsoon, but the wind only brings in the dust and debris through the cracks of the windows and the space below the doors. The rain has left us as all breathing things do. To conserve resources, I shower once a week, the water muddy as it drapes around me. The toddler sleeps curved like a bean, his nose pressed into my neck, trying to sniff the semblance between our mother and me. When the teenager plays the violin, suddenly off-key, I remind him to keep the music simple, carve out the sour notes and start again. At night, my extra hands shuffle through the dark, reach the face of my siblings and run fingers through their hair, feel the rush of their breath. I have varicose veins because of standing too long, chasing the kids in my dreams.
Sometimes my mother appears in the doorway between the kitchen and the patio. “No help will come for you, you’ll only grow hands, one pair from another, light year after light year, and still, it will never be enough,” she says in her usual high-pitched sing-song voice, continues with her tense sips of air as if she’s still breathing.
I massage my mother’s scalp—there are dead insects, dried leaves, dirt. My extra hands swat the flies. Steam from a pot of boiling rice curls in our hair like cobwebs. I offer her a bowl of stir-fried veggies, boiled eggs. She swallows them without chewing. “In afterlife, there’s no metabolism, only hunger,” she says. From the drawn curtains, the sun pokes our eyes. My mother complains she will never be whole enough to reincarnate since her children, a part of her body, are still living. I touch her blue-cooled skin, love handles around her waist, sense a pulse inside her−not enough to be a heartbeat, her voice warm between our mouths, her fingers fluttering like wings. My father walks into the kitchen, says I am talking to myself. My mother half-smiles listening to the sound of his deep-throated voice, the slight dark between her lips that separates memory from loss. Then she plucks my extra, worn out hands like two bad teeth. I ask her what I would do after the children grow up and leave. “You will raise your shortcomings as your own child, one that will always stay,” she claims.
As she backs away, I look at her glinted eyes. “I have high hopes for you,” she says before she disappears. The holes my extra pair had left feel hollow like a contracted womb of a hand-me-down-mother who never birthed a child, who craves her mother. I wrap my discarded hands in my mother’s old dress, place them under my bed. At night, I hear them scratch the floor, crawling back and forth as if unsure what to look for. How to search another source of blood, another body, another mother to mobilize them.
Tara Isabel Zambrano is the author of Death, Desire and Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection by OKAY Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, a second prize in Bath Flash Award 2020, been a Finalist in Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest and Mid-American Review Fineline 2018 Contest. Her flash fiction has been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019, The Best Micro Fiction 2019, 2020 anthology. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.