My seven-year-old lies on the fuzzy rug in her shared bedroom; the ball of her right foot is on top of her left and her arms stretch out in a T. She flutters her eyes and drops her right ear to her right shoulder. Her wavy blond hair is in a ponytail at the nape of her neck.
“What are you doing?” I ask, carrying in a basket of folded laundry.
“Playing Jesus dying on the cross,” Chloe answers for her older sister. “He has nails in his boobies!”
I roll my eyes and tickle little Jesus’ feet. Grace kicks with laughter then grows gravely serious. “Jesus died, Mommy. He really did.”
“He has nails in his boobies.” Chloe lifts up her polka dot top.
“Noo-oh!” Grace insists. “The nails are in his feet and in his wrists and he has thorns sticking into his head and blood trickles down his body. He’s slumped over like this.” She extends her arms again and drops her head.
“Okay, honey.” I pause, looking past my tired reflection, past our garden, beyond the wooden fence and into our neighbor’s kitchen. I’m trying to think of the right thing to say. I want to tell her that she’s too young to hear these stories, to have these images injected into her head. Her Holy Communion book is open and I’m supposed to read it with her. I read the first paragraph to myself: “Station 4: Jesus Meets His Mother.”
“Jesus, you feel so alone with all those people yelling and screaming at you. You don’t like the words they are saying about you, and you look for a friendly face in the crowd. You see your mother. She can’t make the hurting stop, but it helps to see that she is on your side, that she is suffering with you. She does understand and care.”
“Mom-my. Mom-my. Mom-my!” One of them is chanting. Maybe both. I close the book and wonder if my fears of having my children grow up differently than me is causing them harm. “Enough Jesus talk for today,” is all I can muster. “It’s time for bed.”
Chloe jumps into her twin bed and Grace reluctantly walks over to hers. Over the guardrail, I kiss Chloe on her freckled nose. “Put on the magic,” she demands. I stir two imaginary pots then wave my fingers over her from head to toe. I mumble fake spells with the power of a sorceress. “Good night, Pie,” I whisper. She’s practically asleep by the time I walk over to Grace’s bed.
“Is the bread really his body?” Grace asks.
“I guess,” I shrug. “It’s more like a symbol.”
“Is the wine really blood?”
“Can you read me something else?” She widens her blue eyes and her chest heaves. She’s about to cry. Every night before bed, she looks like this.
“Not tonight, honey. I need to sleep. Let me put on the magic.”
My hands wave with power. I utter gibberish. I believe the gibberish. I may be Emma the Sorceress, but I’m actually praying to Jesus that she falls asleep. Nothing works. The girl hates sleep. There are not enough books in the world for her to read. There are bad dreams even before she closes her eyes.
“Snuggle me,” she begs.
I climb over the white picket fence and breathe into the curve of her warm neck. She hangs on me like a tire swing. We are in a meadow. There is a breeze and her swing is tied to my weeping willow. Her toes skim the pond. We no longer hear traffic. We no longer need alarms to alert us that someone has broken in. We don’t care. Take the unpolished silver, the obligatory china, the Waterford Crystal. Earthquake, come now. We sleep intertwined like branches.
The grinding of her teeth wakes me: marbles crushed by an elephant’s foot. By the sound of it, she will wake up with jagged teepees in her small mouth, a mound of gravel cutting her pink gums. I don’t know if I should wake her. Is the bone crushing sound disturbing me or is she actually breaking her teeth? I attempt to massage the hinge of her jaw, but her eyelids tighten and she shakes me off with her hand.
Leave her alone. I climb over the guardrail, walk down the hall and get in my own bed. I write a note to call the dentist. I pray to God, The Universe, Buddha, my grandmother and my Great Aunt Patty. Never to Mary. Never to my grandfather.
I ask them: Why am I passing on this religion? Why does a seven-year-old grind her teeth? What is she afraid of? Please, I say, just for one night…take away the things that scare her. Give them to me.
I’ve had this dream so many times that I tell myself, This Is The Dream. My skin is sewed to my duvet cover with a black thread. It is the exact spool that had stitched my lips back together when the neighbor’s dog ripped my face in two at age seven. I remember looking in the mirror at my unzipped face, both sides of my lips blown to my ears. My gums and bones exposed like a skeleton. It’s Thanksgiving so the doctor who is stitching me up is an intern. My mom holds me down, her neck craned away. I know she hurts as much as I do; yet, there is nothing she can do. Does it help to see that she is on my side, suffering with me? Or does realizing there is nothing she can do to protect me make it worse?
I’m kicking. I’m screaming. But I’m sewed to the bed. Wake up. I am stronger than this thread that has sewn my face back together. But it is taut like fishing wire. When I sit up, my skin stretches, and I slam back into the bed that is no longer soft. I struggle like this for a while, until my formless self rises from my body. My empty flesh stuck to the bed, I tiptoe on the 100-year-old floor like a ghost. But I’m not a ghost. I’m a seven-year-old-girl who sees crucified monsters.
I’m startled by the sound of running feet. My eyelids are glued shut but I feel the girls jumping on my immovable body, my full bladder. Their heels dig into my quadriceps. They step on my shins. My head whips back and forth in pain, but I don’t want to frighten them.
“Mommy, where are you?” Grace shouts.
“Get the scissors,” I say calmly in my other voice. “Cut the black thread.” But they don’t hear me.
“Mommy!” she screams. They jump off my body on the bed, their feet pounding on the floor, climbing the stairs. I hear them getting closer, then I feel them shake me awake. I look at their bright faces and my eyes fill with tears.
“Why are you up here?” Chloe asks, gleefully. “Did you sleep upstairs?”
“I don’t know,” I reply. “I must have been sleepwalking. I had a bad dream.” I’m sitting on the playroom floor next to a plastic toy kitchen. I push my hair out of my face, extend my arms, and pull them into the willow tree. They watch the sap pour from my eyes. They don’t know that mommies can cry yet. They are mystified.
“Are you crying?” Chloe asks. “Mommy’s crying!” she says to her older sister. “Why is mommy crying?”
I let the tears fall down my face and Chloe catches them purposefully with her finger.
“I know why you are crying,” Grace looks at me closely. “You’re crying because you are happy,” she says confidently. “You’re crying because the world is so beautiful.”
Jennifer Lewis is the publisher and editor of Red Light Lit. Her short story, “A New Low,” was the winner of the Nomadic Press Bindle Award in 2018. In June 2017, she was the 1st runner-up for the Los Angeles Review Creative Non-Fiction Award for “Holy Communion.” Her fiction has been published in Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Eleven Eleven, Fourteen Hills Press, Midnight Breakfast, The Los Angeles Press, sPARKLE & bLINK, X-Ray Literary Magazine. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University in May 2015 and was the recipient of the Leo Litwak Award for creative non-fiction in 2012 and for fiction in 2015. She teaches at The Writing Salon in San Francisco.