by Hege A. Jakobsen Lepri
There is no full moon. I look up anyway, though I tell myself I’ve stopped looking for explanations. It’s April, the bleakest of months. The empty promise of spring makes every day a disappointment. I’m cold—a heavy, damp cold forced on by a cloud cover so thick it would block out any effect of the moon even if it were full. Third time in three weeks I’ve been called here before four in the morning. We can’t go on like this.
My key is at the bottom of my bag, next to my emergency tampon and Xanax. The door hinges have just been oiled and make no sound. At least I remembered to do that last Sunday. I tiptoe down the half-lit corridor, the thud of my house clogs smothered by the worn, brown carpet. And despite my efforts, as soon as I push the living-room door open, she’s there—her sixth sense still compensating for whatever other sense may be slipping.
My other mom is howling. She is wearing a soiled nightgown and her werewolf eyes—her hair a wild, bushy mess.
I try to shush her. “The neighbours,” I whisper, pointing upward, even though it’s the one across the hall who usually complains. I extend my right arm to put it on her shoulder. On a good night that will calm her. This time she lifts her own arms to ward off an attack. There’s a shine around her in the murk of the living room. Her beautiful cheekbones, a reminder of her once exaggerated beauty, have a yellowish lustre.
In this light, I almost believe in her twisted magic. The downy hairs on her cheeks are erect and on guard, straight out of some haunted tale. She watches me warily, lips pulled back while she screams—eyes shifting back and forth. Her fingernails are long, the pink nail polish half scratched off. I’ve got to be careful. She is still deciding if I’m friend or foe.
My nails are short. No point in drawing attention to my big-knuckled fingers. My grey sweatpants complement my husband’s checked hunting shirt—the first items I found on the chair by our bed. My real mom would have given me one long look and then told me some truth about the importance of not letting myself go. But this is my other mom. Her nightmare is mightier than her sense of style and propriety.
“Mom,” I say, “please.”
Next door, Mr. MacLean will be listening. He’s always the one to call. “She’s at it again,” he’ll whisper into the phone. “I hate calling you in the middle of the night, but I’m just worried about what she might do.”
He is unable to hide the mix of glee and excitement in his voice. Probably glad to see she’s going down before he is, grateful that karma finally caught up with that smug bitch who thought she was better than everybody else in the building.
I try to meet Mom’s gaze, to ground her, but she’s still growling, staring at some point above my head. This could take hours. It’s time to call my sister, Ella.
I walk a large semi-circle around Mom to avoid an attack on my way to the wall-phone in the kitchen. There is a list of numbers written in black marker taped up next to the phone. My sister is first on the list, then me, then the health assistant lady and Mom’s family doctor. It’s gotten shorter over the years. Some died. Some never called again after Dad’s funeral.
I rest my eyes on the yellowing grout around the bottle-green backsplash. The cries from the other room fade into the backdrop of urban night sounds: the hum of a radio left on by someone asleep on a sofa, fully dressed; the gargling of old pipes taking in installments of urine. It’s a dated, early sixties building. About half the people here moved in around the same time, when the building was new. My parents too, though everybody thought they were destined for the suburbs—where bank managers and their beautiful wives moved eventually—but they stayed. Over the years new tenants have slowly replaced the originals. Mom’s generation disappears one by one into hearses or ambulances. She may be next, but she isn’t going as quietly as the others.
It’s four fifteen, and my sister picks up on the second ring; she’s probably going through her usual spring insomnia, something she inherited from Mom. The endless repetition of dispositions and idiosyncrasies that run from one generation to another. She’s inherited Mom’s face. I got Dad’s hands.
We only exchange a dozen words. She knows the drill.
“I’ll be there in half an hour,” she says.
At this hour, it shouldn’t take her more than fifteen minutes to drive here; I wonder what she needs to do before getting in the car, but I don’t ask.
“Thank you,” I say.
After I hang up, everything is quiet. In the living room, my real mom is back from wherever she’s been. She is embarrassed, covering the stains on her nightgown with her hands. She’s already tamed her hair by running her fingers through her white locks.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“The neighbour called.”
I watch her spine go from convex to concave as she realizes the meaning of what I say, the possible implications for her future. She starts whimpering like a child, powerless and pathetic. I almost prefer her as a werewolf.
“I’m so sorry, so sorry . . . it felt so real—not like a dream.”
“It’s okay,” I tell her, the irritation almost gone.
She’s shrunk to an inch shorter than me, looking tiny and frail. I don’t hug her. Her clothes are too soiled, and the closeness would be too much.
I take her by the hand and lead her to the bathroom, stepping over broken glass and piles of pillows and tablecloths. Mom’s feet are bare, but she walks through like a fakir without spilling a drop of blood. She still has some magic tricks left.
At the bathroom door, she stops me. “Let me do this alone. I can take care of myself.”
I go to her room to find a clean nightgown, feeling the furriness of worn flannel as soon as I open the drawer. The pink gown with roses seems a poor fit. Camouflaging as a sweet old lady won’t fool anyone. I find one that my sister gave her a few years ago. A leopard-spotted flannel nightgown. I finally get the joke.
In the bedroom, things look normal. Nothing like the craziness in the living room. Only the pillows are on the floor. I pick them up and fluff them until my chignon comes loose. When all the lumps are gone, I hand Mom the folded bundle of flannel through a slim line of light from the bathroom, the slight tremor in her hand magnified by the play of light and shadow.
By the time my sister arrives, Mom is all cleaned up and ready to return to sleep. She’s tired but lights up when Ella comes through the front door in a cloud of perfume and cigarette smoke. She’s nicely made up, and there’s no trace of having been woken up. Maybe she hasn’t slept at all.
My sister and I sit one on each side of the bed. Mom’s eyes turn to my sister, smiling and adoring. “You shouldn’t have come,” she says. I’m glad you’re here,” she adds.
My sister coos and whispers, “Dear Mommy” and “just relax now.”
I fix my gaze on the baby-blue carpet Dad hated so much.
“You know, I thought I had to finish spring cleaning before this matron came back,” Mom says. She yawns. “I was terrified,” she chuckles, closing her eyes. “Isn’t it funny?” She sounds contented, safe, and there’s a hint of her old cockiness. I don’t think it’s funny.
My sister turns off the light, and we leave Mom to make sense of the boundaries of dream and reality.
“Too many hours spent on British costume dramas,” I diagnose. “That’s the only place she’d get the idea of a nightly spring cleaning. Reruns of Upstairs, Downstairs I’d say.”
I don’t have my sister’s wit or weightlessness, but we laugh because that’s something we know how to do together.
“So now what?” Ella says, digging for her Camels inside her bag.
“Now we have to clean up,” I say, looking intently at a pile of broken porcelain trinkets.
“It gets easier every time,” Ella says, an unlit cigarette dangling from her left hand. She switched hands to help her stop smoking years ago, but ended up ambidextrous and still a smoker.
“What the hell do you mean, it gets easier?” I hiss, looking around for a point of departure.
“There’s less to break each time,” she says.
I snigger against my will. I replaced all the glasses in the kitchen last month with plastic cups, and all the sharp knives are gone. She’s right. We should be done in a couple of hours.
While my sister smokes her half cigarette on the balcony, I start on the pieces of blue and white porcelain bought on a trip to Holland the year Dad retired. The big trip that was supposed to be the first of a long line of expeditions, a final liberation from the apartment he hated and she couldn’t let go of—the carrot that kept Dad showing up to a job he didn’t care for, for forty years.
Mom hated Holland, but loved the figurines. She came back with a disgust for foreign travel. The blue and white ornaments were placed centre stage on the mantel, like a trophy for a retiring hunter. My sister, still in art school at the time, threatened to behead them for better use in a conceptual art piece. For once, Dad spoke up. The trinkets stayed, unscathed—a constant reminder of unlived dreams. Until now. I wait for my sister’s wit to kick in, deliver a one-liner about it, but she’s quiet—not as sharp in the morning as she used to be.
I sweep broken heads and arms and windmills onto the dustpan. Using the vacuum cleaner would further jeopardize mom’s position with the neighbours. A wooden clog and a set of silver-plated spoons have survived the ordeal. I put them back on the mantle. Dusting will be easier from now on.
“I think she may have thrown something from the balcony as well,” my sister says, closing the balcony door behind her.
I turn so quickly my spine cracks. One of the signs that I’m past my prime.
“The balcony?” I repeat. “Why?”
“Ours is not to reason why,” she says.
“What did you see?” I say.
“It’s still dark, but I could see papers and something shiny down there. We have to go and look.”
“Oh my god,” I say.
We look at each other, thinking in unison about the ground-floor tenant. The older ones are the least tolerant, and they were never friendly in the first place.
“We need to clean it up before people in the building wake up. She could be evicted.”
The fear of being forced to make decisions together is just what we need to focus. There is no full moon, but suddenly we’re transformed too—turned into one united cleaning organism—twirling around each other, putting away tablecloths, checking all the chairs, trinkets and glass, wiping the coffee table, doorposts, and bookshelves of evidence. My sister on her knees scrubbing a stain off the brown and beige carpet, me on my stomach trying to guess what’s beneath the sofa.
It’s five thirty when we sink into the armchairs in front of the old TV. My sister in Mom’s, the one that smells more of lavender than of old velveteen. I’m in Dad’s, where all the smell is gone.
We’re bracing ourselves to go outside. It’s barely over freezing this time of night.
“Dad’s urn!” Ella suddenly cries.
“What do you mean?”
“It can’t be,” I say, looking around. “I moved it.”
“To the mantle,” she says, pointing to the set of spoons.
I feel sick, but my sister takes the lead and finds a flashlight in the kitchen drawer. She hands me my old black coat, and I notice she has a new one. Leather.
We tiptoe down the stairs. Ms. Wilcox on the ground floor is a light sleeper. My sister opens the front door just enough for us to squeeze through without triggering the squeak.
I don’t remember the fence around the small lawn being this high.
Ella is taller than me, and makes it over on her first attempt. I stumble and almost get my crotch caught.
The flashlight beams a narrow path of light. We both start gathering the papers.
“What are these?” my sister asks.
“I don’t know. This is a newspaper clipping about UFOs.”
“Here’s an old dress pattern.”
“I have no idea where these came from,” I say.
“I hope I never find out.” She shines the torch back and forth. “There’s the urn.”
The brass is slightly dented but the urn looks all right.
“I have it,” I say, sounding like I’m six again, racing my sister.
“Yes, but the ashes are gone,” she says. “The lid is over there.”
I put my nose over the opening. It still smells of ashes. I recognize the odour, iron and nothingness, different from my sister’s ashtrays.
“They’re still there. I can feel them.”
She doesn’t answer, but the flashlight agrees with her. There are a few grey stains left, but the ashes are gone.
“What are we going to do?” I ask, tears starting. I hate crying in front of her.
Sister is calm. She picks up all the paper, the urn and the lid, and steps off the mini lawn. “First, I’ll smoke the rest of my cigarette.”
I make it back over the fence without incident and watch her light the butt. “I can’t believe it. Dad’s ashes. Is she trying to say something?”
“There’s no message,” my sister says. “Stop looking for it. Relax.”
I watch her bend and put her cigarette to the first scrap of paper. I follow the flame as it eats its way through the pile.
She sucks on her smoke until only ashes remain of the tiny bonfire. Then she scoops it all up with a piece of paper and a makeup brush, before she lets it slide into the urn.
I look at her in awe. She always was a deviant kind of genius. Then I start crying again. “I miss Dad.”
“Well,” she says, “he’s here somewhere.” She hands me the urn through the open front door of the building. “From now on, you can think of him being sort of everywhere.”
I take it from her angrily. Her magic lightness doesn’t touch me this time. There is no full moon.
As dawn announces itself, even our magical thinking is gone. I climb the stairs behind her, following the rude noise of her high-heeled boots, my own steps bursting with muffled rage.
She opens the door to the apartment with her key and keeps it open while I enter. Up close, in the light, I see that her makeup is from yesterday—old mascara making her eyelashes cling. I haven’t asked her about Frank, if he’s moved back in or not. I can hardly imagine her alone in that wrought-iron bed I helped her choose. Though, maybe she’s updated her furniture for something that better expresses who she’s become. It must be two, three years since she invited me home.
She notices how I look at her, smiles and says, “Ready for another batch of Twilight?”
“Those are vampires. I thought we decided on Mom being a werewolf.”
“Well, she’ll suck the lifeblood out of both of us if she keeps this up.”
We tiptoe along the corridor, mimicking ourselves from years back, sneaking in. Things are calm. I think about the note I have to write to the lady who helps Mom every morning. In the kitchen, I find paper and a pen. My fingers, soiled with Dad’s ashes, leave traces of him all over the notepad.
Ella is behind me; I can feel her breath close to my hair.
“Of all the things I imagined for my life, I never thought I’d be here doing this before six in the morning.”
She sounds tired, and if she intended it as a joke, it came out all wrong.
I turn around and lean into her. It’s not really a hug—just two women leaning on each other, because there is nothing else to do.