[Image: “Firemoon,” by Daria Hlazatova]
On the drive to the Bronx, Martha remembers the saints. Seeing a life past them is like seeing past the rain that flowers on her windshield. She can see clearly enough to get to where she needs to go, which is not far. Her son, Walt, waits for her.
Walt once kept the saints in a shoebox. The holy cards had belonged to Martha’s father and the frilled creamy border of them was smudged with his fingerprints. As a child, Walt’s fingerprints overshadowed his grandfather’s as he held each card. He held Saint Apollonia on visits to the dentist. He wept with Saint Roch the day a dachshund was flattened on their street. He held Sans Sebastian, that venerated pin cushion, after school when he came home with his nose bloodied and feet bare, his shoes knotted and strung from a distant telephone wire.
Walt had called Martha for help with his broken stove. Martha had listened to him from her house in Yonkers and couldn’t help but wonder about his circumstances. He recently moved to Woodlawn. Hearing this, she knew he’d abandoned all hopes of going into seminary.
She parks on the street and pulls up the hood of her sweater. She tries to imagine the first time Walt saw this house, a shabby two-story thing with a small, useless gate. When Walt had graduated high school he left their neighborhood of sullen pink brick marked with Irish flags, the lawns damp and decorated with plug-in Messiahs that light the nights. She thinks of the window that dots the center of her attic. It’s blue stained glass whose center holds a red rose, its petals fierce and spectacular. In the daylight, the rose cradles a reel of sunlight.
On the porch, Martha feels off center. Walt worries her more now than he did as a child obsessed with saints. She remembers watching him on the living room floor hunched over the cards, deep into the world of voluptuous suffering.
She could never fathom so brilliant a thirst for pain. She wouldn’t know what to do with transcendence. Her own saint, as saints go for her, she found in her attic cocooned in bubble wrap from a long ago trip to Santa Fe: a wooden carving of San Pascual painted rose and gold and white. Now he stands on her dresser behind her jewelry box. His eyes are black crescents, his hair thick and faded down his back. There’s a feather in his hat. His face and neck mirror his elongated waist, a little Modigliani robed in southwest sunsets.
Martha knocks but there’s no answer. Loud music is playing inside and she smells pot. The door is unlocked, and when she steps in, a young couple is spread across Walt’s beat up couch. The boy is lying with his legs across the girl who, strangely, is covered to her neck in a blue afghan. He has a wormy little mustache. She has orange hair and a hoop with a skull through her septum. Her face is unbearably gaunt. She looks at Martha with swollen eyes as she brings a one-hitter to her lips.
Martha’s parents had curtains like the ones here, whose lace patterns remind her of the rare sweetness in her mother’s eyes she drank as a child like a worn traveler. They left her the house when they died, her parents, a surprise she’s never been able to reconcile. Even in their old age they possessed a cold, self-conscious ferocity that left Martha transfixed and emptied. She prayed once for her protection against them and the roof of her mouth burned as if her prayer had been hot oil.
“I’m looking for Walt,” she shouts.
The boy clicks a remote and the music stops.
“You his mom or something?”
“Walt stepped out.”
“I’m Julia,” the girl says, and offers Martha the one hitter. “This is Matty.”
“Are you sure Walt’s not here?”
Martha wonders what these two know of her son. After graduation, Walt moved to Florida. He sent her postcards from Ybor City where he worked as a bookkeeper. He lived with a woman in her thirties who taught fourth grade. He returned to New York shortly after his twentieth birthday and got a job at a library.
“Come on,” the boy says to the girl. “Let’s go into the city for a drink. We’ll be right back, I promise.”
“Yeah, we could go to that sweet little bar where that sweet little Lissie works. Right?”
The kid sighs. He puts his hands on his knees, palms up. “Every moment’s a mountain with you,” he tells the girl. “Every single one.”
Martha imagines shaving his creepy mustache with the blade of a knife and ripping the hoop from the girl’s nose. Last week she turned forty-five. There were no flags or signals, no fireworks or long haired women with gorgeous hipbones cheering her on. Nothing was waiting for her at this strange new destination. She just felt old.
The girl dons a sweater and buttons it to her neck. The kid gets up and with the girl’s hand, yanks her off the couch. The girl’s face pales but she beams at the kid. Martha pities her. She knows what it’s like to love with a mind lit and warped with promise, to vouch for mediocrity as if it were an endangered species.
Martha watches them step out. The rain-soaked cattails leave dark splotches on the walk.
Sirens and stereos pulse in the night. A car screeches, a man yells. All these strange exteriors. They’ve almost become a part of her. Everything comes together somehow, seeping into the night.
The boy kicks the door shut behind them, and Martha is alone. She looks at the ashtray on the coffee table shaped like a mermaid. It’s full of bottle caps, matches, and butts and surrounded by beat up textbooks and pizza crust whose age she could not say.
Walt’s hand on her shoulder is light but firm. She’s dozed off and didn’t hear him enter.
She looks at his kind, unassuming eyes and powerful jaw. His unkempt hair covers a high freckled brow she’s seen on no one but his father. His clothes are wet from the rain and he carries his groceries in one hand. She stands, and they awkwardly hug.
“Thanks for calling.”
The kitchen floor is caked with mud. Walt sets his groceries on the table and nods at the stove. Martha sees Walt’s old prayer card of Saint Dymphna pinned to the fridge by fruit magnets and orphaned letters of the alphabet.
“Your landlord couldn’t help you with this?”
“He never returns my calls.”
“I’m not sure I’ll be much help.”
“I thought maybe you could try. You’ve taken care of that huge house all these years.”
“I took care of you.”
“You want anything to drink?” Walt says, as he opens the stove and peers inside. “Tea?” she says in jest.
Walt looks at her vacantly.
“I got to meet your roommates,” she says.
“Matty and Julia.”
“You talked to Julia?” Walt jabs at the buttons on the stove, then turns the knob. “See? Nothing.”
“Maybe it’s the igniter?” she says. “Honestly, I don’t know how to help. Stoves love me.”
“Can we sit down?” he asks.
At the table Walt tends to a chunk of mud dangling from his boot. Martha wants to hold him now, but she stills before the fence they made, astonished at their handiwork. It’s hard, Martha realizes, to say what’s hers and what’s his, but there it is and here they are.
“I’ve missed you, Walt.”
“Don’t do that.”
Martha looks at a loose thread in her tights. Walt looks at Saint Dymphna. Her scarf is loosely tied around her head. Her lamp is lit and her sword is braced against the devil at her feet. Satan’s horns hang ornamentally above his pointed ears. He grins like his mouth and cheeks have been pulled back by probing fingers. Why is life so goddamn theatrical? Martha wonders. She wants nothing more than to hold her son’s face and stare into his eyes. She imagines what it would be like to press his fingers to her face, to let him feel the hard rhythm of her years.
“What do you think of Julia?” Martha finally says.
“Julia likes paralysis.”
“She enjoys being stuck in what she is and who she’s with. People like that don’t change.”
Didn’t I? Martha almost says. A lonely, stupid question with dangerous answers. She’s glad she stopped herself. Walt’s smile is heavy.
“Besides,” he says, “Can’t a guy love the one who got away? The one you sent away?”
There’s no malice in his voice. He looks at Martha and his hand, forgiving, slides towards her across the table. Martha doesn’t need to ask who’s lit his mind. She squeezes his hand and in her grasp the bones sing.
The summer before seventh grade Walt got the inner call to priesthood. He told Martha one morning in the kitchen where she sat with the delights of a dark roast in hand. She did not need to look up from her newspaper to know Walt was there. The news was heavy between them. When he spoke, the zeal unfolded like great egret wings. The words soared.
There he would be, graduating high school, then college, then entering seminary where he would join the ranks of other men at St. Joseph’s who moved in their cassocks like petrified crows. She didn’t want to believe it, but she was grounded in the realization that other mothers had it worse. Her son wanted to cradle the souls of all things, to grow a heart comparable to God’s. Besides, Martha had never been a Catholic. How could she desecrate such faith?
Later, Martha received a call of her own. It was from her cousin in Buffalo, Sean, who needed a favor. He wanted Martha to watch his daughter CiCi for the summer while he “cared for his soul.” Oh, good luck, Martha thought as she recalled the days when the cousins, as children, congregated for Easter and Sean kept score of how many skulls he thwacked with a silver trumpet.
Martha was set to refuse him when she remembered the day she met CiCi. It was over a year ago and an aunt had passed away. Overwhelmed by the faces at the funeral home, by the hardened, sour heart of the family, she fled down a hall of many doors. There had been one door open halfway and Martha could hear the sobs from where she stood. An old woman sat in an unseasonably warm red coat dotting her eyes with a tissue. In another chair had sat a girl about Walt’s age with carrot hair and electric pale skin. This was CiCi, Sean Brady’s girl, she remembered.
“I’m sorry, dear,” the woman had said to Martha. “But this precious girl just told me she has not accepted Christ as her lord and savior.”
She’d recognized the woman as Aunt Adelaide. Growing up, Martha had hated the way Aunt Adelaide scrutinized young women, her eyes raking their skin as she looked for wounds in places wounds would never live. Martha had felt a sudden desire to protect CiCi.
CiCi had smiled. Her words were directed at Adelaide but she looked at Martha. “But ma’am, that’s not true. I have accepted Jesus. But Buddha and Patti Smith have saved me too.”
Martha adored her instantly.
Now, as she spoke with Sean, Martha realized CiCi would be good for Walt. He needed laughter. Irreverence from a mother would have been debilitating. It had to come from a friend.
CiCi arrived walking tall, yet her eyes alluded to a private sinking. She didn’t turn to wave at her father when he backed out of the driveway and disappeared down Dunwoodie St. When she spoke, Martha and Walt leaned in. CiCi tilted her face to the attic window with the rose. Her smile was sad, but light appeared in her eyes.
“This house is unreal,” she said. “Thanks for taking me in.”
Walt looked at CiCi the way he looked at his cards, gently and expectantly. He also watched, Martha saw. He watched the coral hairs of her sweater spray in the breeze. He watched her hard mouth break into a smile. It wasn’t awe Walt had for her exactly, but anticipation, Martha thought. He watched CiCi’s skin as if her blue veins could map their summer together.
To welcome CiCi Martha served cranberry juice and lentil soup. At dinner CiCi grew more unconvinced by circumstances. She responded to Martha’s questions in sharp one to two words. Walt’s eyes darted from his soup to CiCi’s hair and body in one wrecked triangle, enough to sear new shapes into her.
“Walt,” CiCi said, “it isn’t polite to stare.” Even her surliness was mature.
Martha ate her soup and thought of the cruel blank squares of her calendar, how the approaching summer days had been emptied into caves. What was Martha to do with two preteens for the next six weeks? Walt could entertain himself but for how long? CiCi was another story. When she looked at Martha, there was need in her eyes. Martha couldn’t ignore it if she tried.
“Once, in another life,” CiCi said. “I was the crane that tapped the sides of skyscrapers. The feathers inside your pillow.”
Martha put her spoon down. Would she have to check the girl’s luggage for drugs? “Walt,” CiCi said. “What’s in your pocket?”
Walt took out the Saint Christopher card. “Do you carry that with you all the time?”
“No,” he says. “Sometimes it’s someone else.”
“You’re at that age when the voice starts to crack, aren’t you?” she says. “It’s weird isn’t? In school our teacher showed us these red faulted rocks. They were beautiful but also a little sad. I bet that’s what the inside of your throat looks like when you’ve got something to say no one else will.”
Walt’s face pinked and he looked into his empty bowl. Martha looked into hers as well. Her face was a blur.
CiCi was gentle with Walt. The two would lie on their stomachs in the living room watching T.V. or listening to Martha’s old records. Walt would show CiCi his prayer cards and she would study them. A few cards went missing and Martha wondered if CiCi hid them somewhere. Walt never pressed the issue and Martha didn’t either.
CiCi loved the story of Saint Dymphna and once reenacted her story for Martha and Walt. Martha applauded cautiously when CiCi’s head vanished into her cardigan. Walt frowned. CiCi’s face was blank and bulky pressed against the fabric. Only the center of her scalp was visible.
Walt didn’t speak to her again until dinner when it became clear CiCi would remain beheaded for the rest of the night.
“You should eat something, Dymphna,” he said at the table, a smile behind his hands. “You’re nothing but skin and bones.”
CiCi owned a skateboard and there wasn’t a thing Walt could do about it. She hoisted her cousin onto that tar-colored tongue and pushed him gently until her fingertips kissed his spine and there was nothing but the space between. Walt flew down the street. Martha saw in his face the joyful, terrified look of a child who’d never known the lives of the saints or even the proverbial ruler. There was no recollection of hard-earned transmutation or its bitter light. The only sacred spring was the air he drank as he called after CiCi. “Get me off this thing—just kidding!”
Once, when cleaning CiCi’s room, Martha found a shoebox beneath the bed. In permanent marker CiCi had written across the top, “Keep out. Walt, this means YOU.” Inside were Walt’s missing saint cards. On the other side of the lid CiCi had written, “They’re in you, goddamn it.”
Halfway through the summer Martha decided to spend more time with CiCi alone. As helpful as she was with Walt and household chores, CiCi was angry. The tantrums came unexpectedly. Her face heated like a hot plate when things didn’t go as they should, and sometimes she had trouble breathing.
One day when Martha told CiCi they couldn’t go for a swim because of the weather, CiCi roared with the thunder and her aqua goggles filled with tears. She grabbed fistfuls of hair and gasped for breath.
Martha helped her breathe. For every breath CiCi was gifted a wooden star. Martha was glad to put them to use. She had found the stars in the same box Walt discovered the holy cards. Until today the stars had collected dust on her nightstand. After six or so stars, CiCi was calm and her breath steady.
Martha put lunch in the oven. CiCi knocked the stars off the table and told Martha she never wanted to breathe again.
“I hate you,” she said. She was still in her goggles and bathing suit. She looked like a cruel insect with its wings plucked right off. “I’m not cut out for this. Daddy always does this to me.”
Martha put the stars back on the table. “He’s just on a trip.”
“Is that what you think? He does this to me all the time.”
“But he always comes back for you.”
“He doesn’t love me, you know.”
“I think he does.”
“I think,” CiCi said, her finger on a star, “you have no idea what that means.”
Martha folded her arms to hold her pain, then turned to the children’s lunch. Twenty more minutes, read the green spheres of the timer. She looked at CiCi’s splotched hand over the stars. Martha’s father probably made them himself. She shook her head at how accidental everything felt.
“I’m sorry,” CiCi said after a while. “I miss him is all. I get awfully sick of love, but I want the real deal. When you think of love, you don’t picture this gloomy sonogram of your own heart do you?”
“Not at all.”
“Of course, you don’t.” CiCi pushed the stars toward Martha. “Of course, you don’t.”
When Martha took in a stranger, she took in the situation. As CiCi’s nature unfolded, Martha’s trust for the situation accordioned in and out. Their dynamics played out in her head like the chant to a hand game: Walt needs CiCi. CiCi needs Martha. Martha needs…
Martha didn’t need those nights of rapid talking. Walt and CiCi’s conversations were like a transcript faxed up from a future heart. They were too old for their age. How could children speak of lives so wildly graced and cheerfully gone? When all was quiet she’d enter the living room and find CiCi resting her head on Walt’s bony shoulder, the two shrouded in a worn quilt as Walt’s thumb moved in gentle circles over CiCi’s elbow.
One night laughter woke her up. It was late. Martha crept upstairs and listened outside Walt’s door. The two kids laughed and laughed, and then there was silence. The light was off. The tiny bedroom T.V. cast a blue light onto Walt and CiCi. She was in Walt’s lap with her legs straddled around his waist, reaching for the prayer card he held above their heads. Martha’s eyes went from the card to Walt’s underwear spiraled and stained on the floor. CiCi wore nothing but cotton panties and a thin white tank top.
Damage, like design, proceeds from a simple concept, its solution woven into the very themes it chose to rebel: intervention through love, restoration through justice. But Martha wasn’t at home in these themes. She could barely breathe. She reached for a wall to keep herself from falling, but instead she grabbed CiCi’s arm and yanked her off the bed.
“What are you doing in here?” Martha hissed. “You have a bed. How dare you.” CiCi paled in the blue light.
“Martha, please let go.”
Martha smacked her hard across the face, and Walt stood up. He opened his mouth but Martha wouldn’t hear of it.
“And you, Mr. Preordained. You want to be a man of God? Not like this you don’t. Never like this.”
She slammed Walt’s door shut and marched CiCi downstairs to the kitchen. Martha acted angry but she didn’t know if she was. She didn’t know if she was in her own body. Her trust for CiCi skinned away. She thought about CiCi skateboarding down Dunwoodie St. with her head all loud and made up inside. Made up about the world, the skies, and the hissing fountain inside her that poisoned the family until she randry.
Martha thought about his tormentors, about how, if she’d had her way, not a liter ofblood would’ve done the trick. Now, she didn’t trust him either. She longed for her pregnancy, for those months she carried him and wrote him letters and had no idea who he was.
CiCi wept silently. She held out her cupped hands and raised them to Martha.
“If you think I’m bad,” she said, “take these. Just hold them for one minute and you’ll know everything.”
“CiCi, I’m sorry,” Martha said. “I overreacted. Just go to sleep okay? In your own bed, please.”
CiCi’s tears were gentle and constant. Hands still raised, her eyes searched Martha’s face desperately.
“Please,” she said. “Just take them. Take them then tell me there’s something wrong with me. Please say there’s something wrong with me.”
Martha said nothing. She put her hand on CiCi’s back and walked her to her room. The child’s pain was solar in Martha’s palm. Images of that hissing fountain receded. Martha shut CiCi’s door and went to her own bed.
She did take something from CiCi’s hands but not that night. It was Walt’s Saint Anthony card that CiCi had given her the other day after she professed, “Walt doesn’t need this one anymore.”
In her bed, Martha held the Saint Anthony and realized she was a novice at prayer. She held the card unsure if she was supposed to direct her prayer to the robed man or chubby Messiah eyeing an unseen sky. In her confusion, she lost the pleading words that just seconds ago had given her loss a color and shape.
She placed the card face down on the bed. What if the prayers Walt and her cousins and all the faceless men at the seminary swore by was another trapdoor that dropped her into the cradle of what she’d known all along: that falling to pieces was a self-centered experience and not even spirituality, that promise of wholeness in spite of disparity, could save Martha from the cracks in her heart?
That night Martha dreamed of Dunwoodie at sunset. Martha sat on the porch swing as Walt and CiCi skateboarded down the street. Saintly blood coursed down their faces, though they laughed as if they’d never known pain. Martha checked her pulse but felt nothing.
She lets go of his hand, unsure how long they’ve sat this way. Her grip had pressed tiny white islands into his hands. Now they sink beneath the freckles and veins. Walt watches her as if he can see the memories dance across her face. She’s reminded of a lamp he had as a childthat cast circus silhouettes spinning on the wall. She wonders if Walt sees the dark flashes of her eyes, how they’ve stained her bones.
And does he see the three of them that summer? What about the end, when Martha demanded CiCi’s father return a week early to take his daughter home? She wonders if Walt has his own shadowy explanations of what does not compute.
Walt and Martha lock eyes and out goes the light from both. “Mom?” Walt says.
Martha flees. She knows what she’s doing. She’s mastered soundless flights, destructions: the jobs she’s quit on spot with no explanation, the lunch date cancellations, memories purposefully forgotten, her bank account the hub for reverse alchemy. The guilt of this a tusk against her spine.
See what you’ve done, a voice tells her in the car. See, see?
In the Autumn after CiCi had gone, Martha learned the girl had a rage no star or hand could heal. Did Walt see the bad news on Martha’s face, of CiCi’s future, reduced to bandages and wards?
Does CiCi think of them now? Would she believe that after the night Martha sent her away, Walt screamed at her from the top of the stairs and rained his fists upon his own face? In high school the girls he brought home were cold and called Martha “ma’am” with their teeth bared like dangerous animals. He’d stopped praying. Why was that so hard for her to see?
The rain and the night bury this mid-life of April. Martha misses CiCi. Loss does nothing for the seasons, but Martha knows the hurt is in the spring, in those dewy-eyed days when the buds are bursting and another friend is gone. In grief, bloom is an utter assault.
Last Martha heard, CiCi is a school teacher in San Diego. Martha pictures CiCi on her bicycle riding fast on the shore as she marvels at life in the water. Does forgiveness live there too? In another life, Martha was the shadows of stingrays haunting the ocean’s surface. She was the crumpled newspaper suckling the base of a telephone booth. She was a saint her child never knew.
Martha speeds on as the events of the day replay in a loop. She sees CiCi’s hands that night in the kitchen cupped and held aloft, an offering to her. Driving through the Bronx, Martha cries out and her life twirls into nothing.
Finally, she turns a heavy turn until she’s back in the right direction. She rolls down the window and lets the water in. She lets the water darken the seats and her clothes. The house in Woodlawn waits for her. Its light guides her back to where Walt flings open the door as if he too has forgotten something. Sobbing, Walt is heavy in her arms, but she’s remembered how to hold him this way.
She is the space between land and sea, the stained light of dreams. All things wait for Martha. They’re hidden and known, ebbing into contractions that somehow form a higher self.
They’re in her, goddamn it.
Emily Collins‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The McNeese Review, Angel City Review, Gone Lawn, The Westchester Review, and others. She lives in Portland, ME.