Winner, New Ohio Review Nonfiction Contest
selected by Phillip Lopate
By Rachel Cochran
My parents divorce when I’m five, maybe six, at which point Mom takes the three of us and leaves the state, sardine-packs the whole (broken) family unit into the spare room of her parents’ place in Dallas, where she learns a new routine. Works at an ice cream shop. Avoids the kitchen phone when Dad calls each Saturday morning at 9:00. Cries most nights. (We learn to sleep over it.) She dates around, first a guy named Laslie, who takes us to the rodeo, and whose apartment I walk into one day to find that he’s napping naked on the couch. It’s the first naked man I’ve ever seen in person, and it strikes me that the space between his legs looks strangely melted, folded, mottled pink like ground meat. There’s another guy named Andy, the recently divorced brother of my grandparents’ across-the-street neighbor. Andy takes us to a theme park, gives us a day full of sweat and sky and sticky candy. Days later, in the toy aisle of a Family Dollar, my sister shakes a Magic 8-Ball, still in its packaging, and asks it, “Is Mom going to marry Laslie?”
Don’t count on it.
“Is Mom going to marry Andy?”
It is certain.
She marries Andy when he asks, and we follow him down to the Gulf, pile into a spare room at his parents’ place this time, even smaller than the first one (We learn to take up less space.)
It’s not until I’m seven years old that we get a place of our own, a blue- painted trailer on Andy’s family’s property. My sister and I share a room, little bigger than a closet. In such close quarters, it’s easy to twine together, to become inextricable from each other. I wear my hair like she does. I pick up books as soon as she puts them down. We’re separated by three and a half years but we talk like creepy twins, say the same things at the same odd times in ways that make my mother shudder, make her tell us to stop it, as if it’s something we’d planned. At the age of ten, Jessica experiences an ethical crisis, becomes a vegetarian, and, days later, my mouthful of bacon turns to tar, and all I can think is dead, dead, and suddenly I’m a vegetarian too. It’s not something Mom understands, that now she needs to look for things like gelatin and lard in the ingredients lists of the boxed food she buys us, that all of a sudden she can’t feed us on the eight-for-a-dollar ramen packs she’s been pretending build strong bodies. It doesn’t help that our pretty new stepmother is a vegetarian, that when we visit her three states away we can eat our fill of tofu and seitan and TVP, only to turn into haunted scavengers under our biological mother’s roof, improvising thin stews from ketchup, cabbage, and cans of corn.
My mother doesn’t understand loving animals so much that you can’t bring yourself to eat them, but she does understand loving animals. She’s a rancher at heart; when she imagines her future, she doesn’t think in terms of a career or a family but rather of the kinds of animals she’d like to surround herself with. Mostly, it’s horses. She paints them—dreamscape watercolors of pintos, paints, and palominos, leaping in a foggy field or crashing in a gray-blue surf, frolicking across canvases that stretch taller than my body. When she talks about the horses she’s owned, the ones she’s almost owned, the ones she’s given up because she can’t afford to keep them healthy and fed anymore, there’s a tenderness in her voice that makes my stomach turn. When I overhear her talking about us—she can’t afford to keep us, either—all she ever sounds is tired.
The snakes are my mother’s way of connecting with Jessica. Lately, my sister’s been making her own animal dreamscapes, too, populated by the dragons she reads about in her feminist fantasy young adult books, the ones that always seem to feature some sassy princess who can take care of herself. My sister, eleven years old now, doodles dragons in the corners of her class notes, idly inks them on her wrists and forearms while she’s sitting on the school bus. Then suddenly we’re at a pet store, and my sister is making eye contact with a clamshell-pink snake through the glare of aquarium glass.
“Snow corn snake,” she reads from a card taped to the shelf below. The snake doesn’t move, watching my sister with one red eye.
They eat mice, so Mom buys a couple that are already dead, frozen, and we pack them into the freezer next to the boxed taquitos. The snake, which Jessica names after one of the sassy princesses from her dragon books, sits on a bed of cedar shavings in a small aquarium on my sister’s dresser, still full from whatever she was fed last at the pet store; it can take up to two weeks after feeding for a snake of her size to grow hungry enough to eat again. In that first week I grow accustomed to her presence, to the way she disappears within her own habitat, flashing her pale underbelly to blend in with the wood chips. I learn to identify the shape of her whenever she manages to burrow beneath, to see the heaps she displaces like mountain ranges ridging a globe. On the rare occasions when I handle her, I feel the cling of her lamp-warmed scales, not at all the chain mail I’m expecting but shockingly soft like the grip of a finger, the constant readjustment of the muscles just under her skin. A snake is a passive pet, but never a boring one.
When the day finally comes to feed her, my siblings and I gather round to watch, but the snake sits, unimpressed, next to the frozen mouse. Hours later, long after we’ve given up waiting, I will return to the room to find that she has begun her meal, jaw uncannily unhinged, the mouse’s back legs and tail still visible and the snake’s throat bulged around its front so tightly I can make out the shape of the mouse’s tapered nose. The mouse will work its way down the snake’s body slowly, taking days to disappear. For now, though, the snake waits, head resting, coiled along her own length—the ouroboros, consuming her own tail.
When I first move to town, it’s the middle of the school year in the second grade. At Fulton Elementary, second grade is the year when each class puts on a play of its own in the early spring, a sort of costume pageant with a series of songs and characters surrounding a predetermined educational theme: presidents, dinosaurs, the flora and fauna of Texas. Mrs. Jackson’s class was assigned an “under the sea” theme back in the fall, so by the time I join in January all the other students have already signed up for the roles they want. The prettiest girls are all fish, their costumes cute and shiny and oddly uniform—their mothers, I think, must have collaborated when making them. The boys are sharks and whales and crustaceans, snapping papier-mâché claws at one another’s nipples and making jokes about crabs that nobody is really old enough to understand.
The music teacher, a smoky-voiced woman named Ms. Carter who is currently going through a bitter divorce from the middle-school tennis coach, is thrilled to meet me. She tests my voice, learns that I can carry a tune, but my even more attractive qualities are my isolation, obedience, and desperation. There’s one role left, one that nobody else in the class signed up for, and it’s a solo.
“I think you’d be a natural for it,” she tells me, already penciling my name in. “What’s your mother’s phone number?”
Across the room, a school of girls all turn away from me at once, shiny costumes flashing as their formation closes into a tight circle.
My mother makes my costume in the last few days before the play, scraps together eight arms out of fabric from the dollar-a-yard bin at Walmart. These, she stuffs with Poly-Fil and sews onto my favorite skirt, so that when I walk the arms stick out around me in all directions, keep anyone from coming close. In the music room, Ms. Carter calls me up in front of the class when it’s time to rehearse my song. I nearly trip over the arms stepping down from the risers, feel my face go red. Ms. Carter doesn’t notice, plunks out the first few chords on the piano, and despite how flustered I am I jump on my cue like she’s flipped me on with a switch.
“Olly the Octopus loves to play,” I sing, swaying in time like Ms. Carter has instructed me to do. “A-kissing and a-hugging every day.”
The music cuts out just in time for me to hear the snickers the line inspires. I don’t know whether they’re coming from the fish girls, or the lobster boys, or both. I can’t bring myself to look.
“Good, good,” Ms. Carter says. “Now, maybe pick up those front two arms, would you? Wave them around in the air while you sway. That’s right, hold them like you’re going to run up and hug the audience. There, that’s it.”
Sometime later, when I’m back at home, I flip to the “octopus” entry in our battered old encyclopedia of animals, where I learn that, though a decidedly antisocial creature, it’s one of the smartest animals in the ocean. I write this fact down, copying it out for a report that nobody assigned.
Cassie Ryan is the first friend I try to make in my new town. I like her for her red hair and freckles, which, along with her name and her tomboyish style, remind me of Caddie Woodlawn, the plucky heroine of one of the many books my school librarian has recommended to me when I retreat there during the social hours of the school day. The first time Cassie comes over she brings a white HEB bag packed with overnight things, and I roll out our sleeping bag on the floor for her.
“This is my sister’s snake,” I tell her, standing on tiptoe to peer into the aquarium. The snake isn’t quite visible, but Cassie isn’t looking, anyway. She’s looking at the bunk bed that’s shoved against the wall.
“You both sleep in here?” she asks.
“These are our mice,” I say, thinking she might like the mice more. We’ve started keeping live ones rather than buying them frozen. I like the mice, and ultimately it’s cheaper, anyway, since if you have a male mouse and a female mouse then you start to generate your own snake food after a while. When baby mice are born they look almost alien, pink and hairless and wriggling in squirming piles like a half-pound of wax worms in a bait shop. There’s a batch of babies now, and I want to show Cassie the way their tiny tails writhe, how their skin is so thin that their purple-black eyes show through still-sealed eyelids.
She looks at the mice. I can’t tell from her face what she thinks of them, but she isn’t smiling. “We have dogs,” she says.
Later, we’re playing outside when I tell her about our second snake, a black and gray male we’d bought to keep our first snake from getting lonely. We’d just picked him up a week ago, but he went missing sometime the night before last.
“Where did you find him?” she asks.
“We haven’t found him yet,” I tell her.
At first, I don’t notice her reaction; I’m too busy carving our initials in the dirt, thinking about pointing out to her that we have the same letters reflected. R-C. C-R.
She calls her mom to take her home, electing to wait on the tire swing outside. Her HEB bag rustles in her lap as the wind nudges at her, makes the rope creak and the bough above sway. Later that night, after I’ve rolled up the sleeping bag and put it away again, we find the second snake, dead in the bottom of the trash can. Mom thinks he climbed in there and suffocated, or maybe was crushed under the weight of the things we threw away.
It’s about this same time that we get lice. The school nurse checks everyone for it. I don’t know what it means at first when she asks me to bow my head forward, when she roots around my scalp with latex gloves that snag at my hair. I don’t know what it means when, after she’s done checking, she walks me back to my classroom herself, takes my teacher aside and whispers something while they both look at me. Mrs. Jackson doesn’t tell me to sit back down at my desk, but rather puts me at the front of the room, near the board.
“I’m going to go call your mother,” she tells me. “You wait up here.”
I spend what feels like forever at the front of the classroom while my classmates go through their lessons. Some of them send curious looks my way; others ignore me entirely. I’m not sure which of these I prefer. When my mom finally arrives she has my siblings with her, gathered from their respective classrooms, standing and watching from the doorway as Mom comes to collect me. She spends a minute talking with my teacher, their voices low enough that I can’t hear what they’re saying. When she finally turns to me, she doesn’t say anything, just grabs my wrist, hard, and leads me out.
I pass one classmate’s desk as we go—a pale, emaciated girl named Ashleigh, whom I’ve seen in the library during recess. As I pass, she locks eyes with me, says in a low voice, “Try dog shampoo.”
We try dog shampoo. We try Rid. We try baby oil, and olive oil, and vinegar washes. We try hot air. We return to school sleepless and wan from long nights spent while Mom tries new treatments, applies one after another onto our scalps and cranks egg timers for us to wait while the bugs and their young are supposedly being burned, or suffocated, or drowned, or poisoned. Some treatments make my head burn so badly that tears prick at my eyes and Mom has to tell me it’s supposed to feel like that, has to hold me still to keep me from running for the shower to wash it out; other treatments leave my hair hanging lank in matted gobbets so greasy that the fabric of my shirts goes translucent like a fast-food wrapper where my hair dangles down to my shoulders. We wash our clothes and pillowcases in boiling water. We boil our hairbrushes too, and end up boiling them so long that the plastic handles curl, that now when we hold them they fit unnaturally, their edges biting into our palms. Mom buzz-cuts my brother’s hair, spends hours paging across my sister’s scalp and mine with a little silver comb, but ultimately she declares it a losing battle. I’ve learned the term “losing battle” only lately, because of how often my mom has said it. I’m trying to figure out when and where and how to use it, but it seems to apply to just about everything.
We’re still losing the battle when the school year ends, when it comes time to fly to Dad’s for our two-month summer visit. The night before we go, Mom stops halfway through combing out my hair. “Forget it,” she says, throwing the comb. It lands with a clack and slides with a sigh across the kitchen floor. “He wants to be a parent, he can do this part.”
I pick up the comb to put it away. Its needle teeth still hold hanks of my hair. I can see three, four little gray nits hanging onto the strands, dewdrops gathered on threads of spider’s silk.
“I’m sorry,” I tell my mother. I’m not sure why I apologize. Mostly, I guess I’m hoping to hear it’s not my fault.
“Yeah,” she says. She picks at her own hair now, fumbling blind fingernails across her greasy scalp, chasing furtive footsteps that, if she sits unmoving enough, she can feel.
I’m in the third grade and my class isn’t allowed to have a designated class pet, but it is allowed to keep animals for a few days. Mostly, my teacher, Mrs. Varnon, brings in animals belonging to the children in the class, guinea pigs and birds and such. When she finds out about the snake, she’s interested in bringing her in, giving the students a lesson on reptiles, but it turns out one of my classmates is deathly afraid of snakes, so we bring the mice instead. We’ve been having a problem with the mice at home. One of the mothers—a large, amber- spotted doe—has eaten her last two litters. As it turns out, this is relatively normal behavior, as far as mice go—I’ve read all about filial cannibalism in a book in the public library, learning about how mothers will eat their young when they feel that the young are weak, or when they experience stress over how they will provide for the newborns—but as a pattern it gives us fewer mice to feed to our snake. Another doe, a red-eyed albino, has recently given birth to a pile of five new babies, and my mother wants to get the brood away from the cannibal, so she packs the new family into a small cage of their own and lets me take them to class with me. They sit in the classroom for the better part of a week, on a table along the back wall where kids can drift over during free time. When anyone wants to handle one of the babies, Mrs. Varnon tasks me with plucking them out and setting them onto my classmates’ palms. “Look, it’s sniffing me!” one girl shrieks in delight. “It’s so small!” When she’s done fawning over it, she passes it gingerly back to me so I can replace it in the cage.
“When will their eyes be open?” she asks me.
“Soon,” I say. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Except that tomorrow, when Mrs. Varnon unlocks the classroom door after recess and we all pile back in, the first girl to walk past the mice cage lets out a scream. We gather around, pushing for the chance to look at what’s inside. I’m smaller than the others, so I have no hope of shoving through, and I have to wait for the initial rush to die down before I can step close enough to see what I already know is there. It’s natural, it’s natural, a voice inside me says. You’ve seen this before. It happens all the time. Yet somehow I can’t shake the queasy feeling that passes over me as I take it in: the white doe, alone in her cage, the cedar shavings around her stained red with the pulpy remains of her meal.
I’m twenty-three, and my sister is driving with me through Arkansas when her Corolla breaks down. We’re not sure exactly what happens to it, except that we all feel something thunk out of the bottom of the car and onto the highway, and evidently it’s something important because the acceleration immediately cuts, and within minutes Jessica has us pulled off onto the shoulder and hiking back to the nearest Phillips 66. One tow and mechanic consultation later, it’s clear that the Corolla is never going to make it out of Arkansas. If we want a chance of getting out ourselves, we’ll have to find someone to come get us.
We’ve been heading from a reunion of our dad’s family in Tennessee back to Austin, where my sister lives, but we’re still almost seven hours out from our final destination. We’re traveling with my best friend and my four-year-old nephew, Vlad, a boisterous kid who alternates unpredictably between loud, playful joy and fussy, vocal discomfort. Like me, he was an accidental child. My sister was not yet out of college, two months into a new relationship when she found out she was having him. She and Vlad’s father are still together, though they never bothered marrying. They’re both natural parents, those beings that seem to be crafted out of infinite patience. There’s a rule in their house that, no matter how frustrated they become, they never, ever yell. They stick to it.
I don’t share any of my sister’s natural mothering instincts. Being around children sets off some alarm in me, something that screams, “Not safe! Not safe!” like any second I’ll do something wrong, I’ll look away or lash out and then the kid will be hurt, or worse. I’d been anxious enough about how I’d hold up sharing a car with the kid for a full day’s drive. Trapped with him in a gas station in an unfamiliar state without an exit in sight, I’m terrified of what I’ll become.
“We don’t even know anyone in Arkansas, do we?” I ask.
“Not in Arkansas, no,” Jessica says, careful.
I know what she’s thinking. Nobody in Austin can throw away a day’s work and make a fourteen-hour round trip to save us. But there is someone who lives closer, someone who has never been able to hold down a day job and almost certainly doesn’t have one now. Shortly after my brother and I fled her to go live with my dad, our mother relocated to live on a small farm in east Texas, just over a four hours’ drive from where we are now. (I learn of the move through the e-mails she writes to me, which I seldom read and to which I never respond.) Our mother, whom I’ve barely seen in five years, when she showed up uninvited to my high school graduation in Illinois with Andy and a couple of her dogs in tow. Our mother, to whom I haven’t spoken in longer than I can remember except for once, accidentally, when I woke from a nap to see that Mom was calling, then dazedly answered expecting to hear my stepmother’s voice on the other end of the line. This whole trip to Austin, I’ve kept secret from her; I’ve planned radio silence on social media so that word doesn’t get back to her, to the Facebook account she haunts just frequently enough to make me feel hunted. (Radio silence isn’t hard for me, anyway. I’ve never learned to share myself. Sometimes I’ll type something out—news of my recent travels, my publications, my thoughts and feelings on current events—but something in me keeps me from pressing enter. “Nobody cares,” a voice says. “The more they know about you, the more they won’t like you.” I guess my mother isn’t the only one who haunts.)
I call her from the desolate end of the parking lot, braced against the crackle of wind in the speakers, already knowing the fare she will extort.
She picks us up in a truck that looks like the one she drove when I lived with her, only this one is bigger, newer. She arrives almost exactly four hours after the call. She must have gotten on the road right after we hung up. She must have hit good traffic, made good time. She’s put on weight, fleshed out at the stomach and upper arms and around the face but the hug she gives is no softer than the ones she used to.
She takes us back to the farm. Night has fallen by now, so we pick our way through the dim kitchen, lit slightly blue. This is the castle my mother has built for herself, the one she could never afford when we were around. This is the world shaped the way she’s always wanted to see it, and I take in what I can, look for any sign that she’s changed. I don’t see much—only more rooster- themed decorations than I can count. Outside, I hear the sound of something neighing, close by.
“Is that a horse?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says, puffing up. “There’s this gelding, I think his old owners were abusive to him. Journey. He’s a sorrel, fourteen hands. I e-mailed you about him, didn’t I?”
I don’t tell her that I don’t always read her e-mails. I don’t say anything. It’s a familiar silence, the one I used to hide behind when I was a little girl. Over the next few days, after my traveling companions leave me to live out their ransom for them, I will become the little girl again, the one who hid behind books whenever I feared I was in trouble. For the first time, though, she will talk to me like I’m a woman, talk to me like she wants to tell me things she protected me from before. We will sit on the couch while she cries, and cries, and tells me she only wanted two children. Tells me she already knew the divorce was coming. I will think I know what she’s saying, so I won’t listen properly, won’t realize that what she’s telling me is new, something I’ve never heard before. “It wasn’t about you,” she will say, voice cracked down the middle. What does she mean when she says it? “It wasn’t that I didn’t want you.”
Now, though, in the blue kitchen on the night of our arrival, a sleepy Vlad leans against my leg, nearly nodding off on his feet while he clutches at my skirt. He’s mistaken me for my sister, but I’m glad for his presence all the same, for the slack weight of him that keeps me standing.
When I’m twenty-six years old, my sister calls me on Mother’s Day. She’s driving home from work, and she wants to know if I have a few minutes to talk. I lie on my back on my bed—my usual position for phone conversations—and almost instantly my cat jumps up, starts to explore me like I’m a mountain range, testing each foothold with her timid black paws. The room is warm.
I can hear the passing of cars on the street outside, the far-off sound of a siren.
“I just don’t know how to feel about Mother’s Day,” Jessica tells me. She’s read a year-old article on Jezebel, one called “A Toast to All the Brave Kids Who Broke up with Their Toxic Moms.” It’s meant to act as a kind of intervention, when the Internet turns into a minefield of virtual flowers and Mother’s Day sales, for those of us, like me, who don’t have relationships with our mothers anymore, who barely survived our encounters with the women who gave us life. In yet another example of sisterly synchronicity, I’d stumbled across the article, too, just that morning.
I seldom know how to talk about Mom, and I struggle writing about her. Considering I pride myself on my words, a subject like my mom poses a real challenge to my professional pride. Sometimes, when I’m recounting some story of what’s happened to me, I’ll notice that the listener’s face turns dubious, even incredulous, and I’ll think, Does it really seem so unreal? Sometimes I’ll catch myself thinking, Did it really happen that way? Talking to my siblings is grounding, validating. I’ll say, “Do you remember when she took everything in my room and threw it into the trash because I hadn’t made my bed?” I’ll say, “Do you remember how she’d drag us all out into the living room so we had to listen while she screamed and cried at us for hours and hours on end? Do you remember doing everything you could to avoid eye contact, to escape your body, while she kept us up past midnight?” I’ll say, “Do you remember how she was always sick with something, always needed to be waited on and to have us do all the housework? How she never held down a job but always complained how busy she was?” I’ll say, “Do you remember how she’d shout at us in front of our friends?” I’ll say, “Do you remember when she grabbed Jessica by the throat and hit her head so hard on the back of the sofa I thought she wanted to kill her?” Then there are the other things, the things I can’t quite question because I don’t have the words, because when I cup my hands around the memories they change shape, or turn to vapor, even as they bring the pain back up again. I know, though, that when I’ve grown distant enough to ask, my siblings will tell me that yes, they remember, and yes, she did it to them, too. They always remember. They’re the only reason I know what happened, that when I ran away, I wasn’t some over-dramatic teen fleeing from a monster of my own making.
I come to these conversations for validation, to revel awhile in my victim- hood, which is why I’m surprised when, in one of our chats, my sister tells me two stories that make me look at my mother as something else, something other than the beast I’ve wanted her to be. For all my own failed attempts to trap my mother in narrative, it’s my sister’s stories that find the right vocabulary. The stories go like this.
In the first one, my mother is a young girl, maybe twelve or thirteen. She’s walking down the road when she comes across a frog that looks injured. Maybe it’s been run over by a car, or a bicycle, or stepped on by a shoe—the details are thirdhand, and hazy. Maybe it isn’t injured at all. Maybe she just believes it is. My mother, impressing her own hurt and confusion and pain onto this frog, decides that something needs to put it out of its misery. She takes a rock and hits the frog’s body with it, but the frog doesn’t die, so she hits it again, and again, and again, until finally it’s split open, and all of its insides are coming out. She sets down the rock and moves on. She feels special, proud of herself. She feels she’s done something good today.
In the second story, my mother is in the final year of her first marriage. She’s followed her husband’s career to a town she doesn’t know, where she has no friends and no family, where she has difficulty getting a job. She has three kids. The youngest, who has just started the first grade, has a pet cat who one day starts acting strange. He’s been hit by a car, my mother thinks, thinks it so hard and so often that she comes to believe it. He’s living a life of constant pain. She sits her daughter down, tells her that the cat is dying. Asks the daughter if she wants the death to be fast and painless or slow and painful. The daughter cries, but doesn’t cry too long. At that age, when a week feels like forever, the concept of death doesn’t feel like much at all. She gives the answer she knows her mother wants. So, my mother takes the cat into the basement, feeds it pill after pill, forcing them down the cat’s throat until the cat is gagging on them. My mother waits with the cat while it groans and yowls and writhes. She is there when the cat dies.
I think of the second story now, on the phone with my sister, while my cat sits sphinxlike on my chest, anchoring me to my bedcovers. Outside, the siren continues to wail, but I can’t yet tell if it’s drawing closer or moving farther away. My cat yawns, a little too long and a little too wide, so that I can see the pink ridges on the roof of her mouth, the curl of her spiked tongue against her bottom incisors. She kneads her paws on my collarbone, pricking me. She hasn’t yet learned not to dig her claws in.
Rachel Cochran is a PhD student in creative writing and 19th-century studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Her short stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Deep South Magazine, Glassworks, Literary Orphans, The Missing Slate, and others, and have earned her the Margaret McKinney, George Mahan, and Virginia Grabill awards in fiction.
Originally published in NOR 22.