Mothers and Ghosts

Fiction by Alison Cao

Descriptive image of a girl holding a snake.

My grandmother is only alive when I’m dreaming. She was smaller than me when I knew her, just bones and papery skin, as if in her last years she was slipping back into the body she inhabited as a baby, losing her hair, her height, her memory even. About a week before she died she called my father by the name of his father, which startled him because they didn’t look a thing alike: he took after his mother, like her face was floating on a man’s body, so that we were a family of all mothers, if you looked at it from the wrong way. And at the funeral I did, from my grandmother’s eyes to my father’s, which were both closed but for different reasons: one because their owner was dead, the other because if he didn’t shut them the tears would arrive much faster and thicker than he could ever allow them to.

But in my dreams, my grandmother is not dead, or a mother, or a woman, really. Instead she is a snake, yellow-eyed and fork-tongued, her body as wide and shadowed as the trunk of an enormous tree. I think that’s what she was pretending to be, the first time I saw her; she held her upper half very upright and still while her lower half pooled into a gleaming coil on the ground. Except it didn’t work, and I stifled a laugh, because she was the only tall thing in that landscape for miles and miles: the acres of grassland, the mountains flanking either side, everything folded under a sky that was much deeper than night, more final somehow, colored like the bottom of a well.

I walked toward her and let the laugh out, and then the ruse was over. She slackened onto the ground and regarded me with her snake eyes, which were larger than the size of my head.

“Hello,” she said, and headed toward me. Slithering seemed an inadequate word to describe how she moved; it was more river or earthquake than animal, the way she flowed, her body so long that it may as well have begun at the tip of some mountain, thin and covered in snow.

“Hi,” I said back. We spoke to each other the way you do in dreams: our mouths moved but no sound came out, the words emerging as a sort of resonance instead, as if someone had struck a bell against the inside of my skull. Her voice was deeper than mine, and richer, and it sounded faintly amused. I had never heard her speak that way in real life.

“Do you know who I am?” she asked.

“You’re my grandmother,” I said.

“That’s right,” she said, “I’m your grandmother. Now look over there,” and she angled her head toward the west, where a gray mist was rising, and through that I could see a cloud of meteorites as they hurtled into the atmosphere and burned up, dissolving into white-hot ether before they could ever touch solid ground; the mountain seemed to rise up to meet them, craning its snow-tipped peak, but they never touched, although sometimes they got so close that heat melted the snow into cold, clear rivulets.

“What is that?” I asked, but the sky flared white and hot before she could tell me, and then I woke up to the sun rising through my window.

“I saw nǎi nǎi last night,” I said.

“Did you?” my father asked, but absently. He was hunched over the kitchen counter, spooning my lunch into a squat cylindrical thermos. That had been my grandmother’s job when she was alive, and after her death the food was always cold when I screwed open the lid, the grains of rice coated with a thin, congealed film of oil that clung stubbornly to my tongue.

“Yeah,” I said. “She was a snake. A really big one.”

He turned toward me then, his gaze fixed on some invisible point just beyond my head. He hadn’t looked at me directly since his mother died, at least without his eyes glazing over, and I supposed it was because I almost had her face. It was more like his, if I wanted to be precise about it; my grandmother’s features went to his face, and then his face went to mine. The effect was that I looked nearly like nǎi nǎi, as if someone had drawn her through a slightly warped pane of glass, so that it was no longer a woman’s face, nor a man’s, although the features remained almost the same.

“You know,” he said, “that was her zodiac sign. She was born in the year of the snake,” and then he turned back around. We hadn’t spoken to each other much in the past year. The closeness of her death had hung in every room like a premature ghost, as if she was already leaving her body before it happened, a fraction of her life escaping with every breath she took, but even afterward there was no release, no catharsis, just the same choking miasma. Sometimes I thought it would be there all my life, until I graduated middle school and then high school and left the house to my father, sitting in his mother’s exhales as the walls cracked and peeled around him.

I wondered about him, even though I didn’t want to. Maybe the silence reminded him of when he was a baby, before my grandmother pushed him out, when he didn’t have to breathe or eat or take care of any motherless daughters, where he could just exist, nurtured by something so much bigger than him that he could only sense the inside of it. Some nights, when I couldn’t sleep, I would steal down the staircase and watch him on the couch, which was faded and pilling from all the years we had kept it. He stared at nothing, not even the moon smeared outside the windows, and in those moments he looked neither alive nor dead; when he heard me he would shake himself, rousing from a mindlessness deeper than sleep, and light would slowly return to his eyes, but never so much as it had before.

The next night, when I went to sleep, I asked her about him.

“Do you miss him?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s always there. He even works from home now.”

She didn’t reply, just looked at me.

“I mean, he changed after you died,” I said. “It’s like part of him left with you, I guess. I read that phrase in a book once.”

“Of course he went with me,” she said. “I made him before he knew what he was. I grew every part of him. It only makes sense that he would leave with me.”

“But that’s not fair,” I said. “I don’t want him to stay like this forever. I want my dad back.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I don’t know if that’ll happen.”

We looked at the stars in the west. They didn’t fall so quickly as they had before, but exploded in slow motion and stayed in the place where they had dissolved, so that the horizon was filled with slowly expanding points of light.

After a while she said, “I miss him, too.”

“Really?”

“Well, I miss the knowledge of him,” she said. “When I was pregnant I felt like my body was splitting in two, like a cell going through division. But I loved his half more than mine.”

I tried to imagine it, growing a body inside my body, a life inside my life. And then pushing that out of me, holding it in my arms, a separate thing now, not part of me anymore. It would no longer need me in the way it once had, and I knew I would miss it terribly. It would be the loneliest I had ever felt.

“I don’t think,” I said, “that I want to be a mother.”

‘That’s fine,” she said. “You don’t have to be. You’re not built for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you looked at yourself? You don’t have a mother’s face. You share my ears and my eyebrows and my mouth, but you don’t look like me. The difference is that I’m meant to be a mother, and you’re not. Your father looks more like me than you do, even though he’s a man, because he still has a little bit of my motherhood left in him, like muscle memory. But a face can only be passed down for so many generations before it loses that. Before it forgets.”

“But you’re a snake,” I said, “and my father isn’t my mother.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “I meant in the waking world. What I look like in here doesn’t matter. And your father was your mother in every way that counted. Maybe if your real mother had stayed alive and raised you the way a mother should, your father’s face would look different, less like mine and more like a real father’s. But he took care of you the way I took care of him. And now he looks like me.”

To the west, the sky was almost completely white. We didn’t have much time left. I turned to her and said, “You’re wrong. You only knew him before you died. Now he isn’t even my father, he isn’t anything, he doesn’t even talk to me anymore,” and before she could say anything else the sun rose again.

I looked at my father differently after that. I wondered how much of his youth he still remembered, what memories of his mother he had needed to make me less motherless. My grandmother was right: he had used up all of our family’s capacity for motherhood to take care of me, and even that wasn’t enough. There were fewer people in my life who loved me, no grandmother and no mother anymore, and the years I spent in silence and empty space translated to holes in my memory; they were not worth preserving after they had passed, and I had nothing else I could give to any child of mine.

The dreams went on, night after night, and I found less and less to tell my grandmother. I didn’t want to hear about how I couldn’t be a mother, and I didn’t want to say anything else about my father. Anyway, there was nothing more to say beyond what I had already told her; it seemed that his capacity for motherhood had finally run out, and whatever was left in his body could perform only the most rote gestures of care, and was exhausted even by those. I didn’t talk to her about anything else, either, out of an absurd fear that she’d vanish if I spoke to her about something she didn’t already know, or else she’d reveal somehow that she wasn’t truly my grandmother. But she rarely talked unless I said something first, and sitting with her under that cavernous, starless sky began to feel no different than sitting with my father, which is to say that it began to feel lonely.

Once she said, “I never answered your question. The one you asked me the first night.”

“About the horizon?”

“Yes.”

I looked to the west. There were fewer stars now, and those that remained were dim; they reminded me of the sky above our house, awash with light pollution. They were going out, night after night, so that it took longer each time for the sky to dissolve into white, and each dream lasted longer than the one before it. I wondered what would happen when the last star disappeared; if I would remain there forever with my grandmother under that sky, bereft of sound and light.

Quietly, she said, “You don’t have to leave, you know.”

One of the stars flickered and blinked out. The sky loomed over my head, and a sound like rushing water surged in my ears. I found myself gasping for air, as if I was drowning, and a small part of me was relieved that I could focus on that instead of thinking of how to respond. But then the feeling subsided, and I was left speechless again. Neither of us made any sound, although we were both breathing; the silence was absolute, and it pressed, viselike, around my shoulders.

So I asked her to tell me a story, and I closed my eyes to her voice. The sound of it was like a flare over the ocean, light skimming over the crests of the waves.

“I swallowed a river before I gave birth to your father. My thirst felt endless, as if your father had bored a cavern inside me with a thousand tiny crevices, and I needed the river to fill in all the holes he had made. I drank every fish, every pebble, every grain of sand, and water, water, water. I only stopped when the river did, and all that was left of it was a massive groove in the stone.

“I felt your father twisting in my stomach then, straining mightily against my skin. All along he had been very quiet, sometimes so still that I feared he had died, leaving me with a body that had no capacity for life. But he was clever. Whenever I had these thoughts he would move, faintly, just enough for me to feel it; and so every time he stirred I felt a rush of great relief, a great desire to protect him. And this only strengthened my love for him.

“Now this movement was different. He writhed and thrashed, hurling himself against the walls of my belly. I knew he needed to leave, and that knowledge filled me with grief. Such was my love that I tried to close myself, to keep him inside me, so that he and I could never be apart, and such was his fury that he fought me open and leapt out. And then I could only watch when the river rushed before him, when it bore his body away from mine.”

I waited for her to finish the story. I wanted her to tell me that she found my father, or that he came back to her, and the two of them became one body again, a person living for more than themselves. But she shut her eyes and swayed a little, as if to the current of a scarcely discernible wind. I waited, and she didn’t speak, so I made myself wake up. I looked at the stars, which were fading even as I watched them, and I didn’t wait for the light to pull me back into the world. I pushed myself out of that place, as I sometimes did in nightmares, jolting my eyelids open into the placid darkness of my room. I had left my grandmother behind willingly this time. I didn’t know if I would see her again, but maybe there was nothing left for either of us to say.

Instead I crept down the stairs again. I found my father in his usual reverie, and this time I took care not to disturb it; I sat next to him very gently, laid my palm on his back, and still he didn’t stir. He seemed neither alive nor dead, though he breathed, and though his skin felt warm through the cloth of his shirt. In the lack of light his eyes were very dark, beyond fathomless, two wells without water, the sky above my grandmother’s head. Perhaps he was there, or had found some other path to return to her in the only way he could. Her body had been burned up and scattered over the sea, but maybe he could still go back to it, could clamber inside it, if only in his memory, if only in my dreams. But at least his body was still here, and I leaned up against it, looked at his face, a mirror of mine, the only mother I knew. The gray edges of dawn began to leak through the windows, and I waited for the light to rise through his eyes.


Alison Cao (she/they) is a Chinese American high school senior from Irvine, California. She is a graduate of the Adroit Summer Mentorship Program, the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, and the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop. She still hasn’t told her mom about her stick-and-poke tattoo.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

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