I received a letter about your illness, and though you’ve been a beast to me most of your life, became determined to do right by you. I subletted my room, negotiated two months leave from work. I took a train to a bus that lurched and jostled its way down dirt roads, then walked the final mile in stifling heat just to cook for you, to bathe you, and to watch you as you weakened. You taunted and cursed me, as I knew you would, and I believe it was your nature that allowed your transformation to go unnoticed by me for so long.
Wretched mother, your room is the same, your clothes, your sheets, but you have changed. Your head has widened, your jaw has distended, your upper teeth have receded, and the wet sockets of your eyes lie empty. In the noontime sun they fill with flies, and by night again are vacant. You have become monstrous, incomprehensible, yet still you live.
“Boy,” you say. “I’m hungry. I’m cold.” And when you speak, the voice is yours, but I do not go to you. My thinking is slower here, muddier. I get the mail. I wave to the neighbors. You sleep most of the day, back against the headboard and chin upon your chest. I can hear the whistling breathing from your nose, and I decide I have not returned home to become a murderer. I will fulfill the role of dutiful son, then return to the world absolved.
I step into your room, each board reminding me which will speak and which remain silent. It’s the bump of the soup bowl on the bedside table that causes your whistling to stop. Your ears flick. “Boy,” you say. “Is that you?”Your sockets gaze uselessly into the room. I don’t move, one foot down, the other raised. My hand holds the bowl.
“Boy,”you say again, lower. You reach out a hand, and for a moment I am still. I know the knuckles, the fingers, the veins so thick and blue they look like worms beneath the skin. I know the nails, too, cracked and grown too long, but still with spots of the clear polish you kept pristine in spite of the calluses, the barn dust.
I pull back and your hand goes out like a shot. I fall backwards. There’s a crack. Pea soup steams down your whiskered chin, and it takes me a moment to realize what’s happened. You’ve bitten the bowl. The world shimmers, condenses. You’re chewing, grinding porcelain between your molars. The sun dips behind the sycamores and the house fills with eveningsong, crickets and pine warblers, and it takes nearly ten minutes for you to eat the whole thing. I lie there, unmoving, until your head droops against your chest and the whistling from your nose returns. The room is heavy with the smell of split peas and ham.
“How’s your mother?” the neighbors ask.
“Good kid for coming home,” they say.
I lie on the couch downstairs. You can no longer move, but still I fear you above me in the night. I’m between dreaming and waking when I hear it. Like a scream. I sit up. The sound is so close I’m certain you’re in the room. There’s a silence, then the two old goats echo you from their pen outside. This goes on for a long time, you calling out and them replying, like you’re passing secret messages. When I go to the pen the next morning, I see they haven’t eaten. The goats just watch me, one on top of the Chevy, the other on a crate.
“You little shit,” you growl. “You’ve been talking about me.”
If you could only see the bowls, I think, you wouldn’t eat them. They were a gift from your mother’s mother, Delftware brought from Utrecht long ago. Each has a scene of pastoral bliss, happy farmers and quiet livestock, painted in a faded, robin’s egg blue. So, I fill a wooden salad bowl with milled grains instead and set it on your lap.
“Won’t be much longer now,” you say.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Your father,”you say. “He’s going to come for me.”
He does. I hear him from downstairs. The boards creaking. He is heavy, just as he was in life. I’m awake, working at the dining room table, and I hear him, gone now 17 years, as he comes through the window at the end of the upstairs hall and makes his way to your bedroom. I hear your door open and him enter, and that’s when they start up, the horses first, then the goats. The noise is terrible. I cover my ears, but I can see him over your bed, eyes hooded and blank, chest a horrible, gaping wound.
In the morning you’re gone.
I do what I can for you. Clip your nails, reapply polish. I slip you into your favorite shoes, flats you’ve had since you were a girl, for the ground is warm and I know you’d rather these than your boots. The dress is more difficult, and I put an incision in the back in order to pull it over your head. I brush your cheeks and muzzle, slowly, gently, and weave dandelions into your hair. When the sun has fallen the eveningsong returns, and I bury you in the garden.
I contact my employer. I will not be returning, I tell them. I sell my apartment and spend longer and longer with the goats, cleaning their pen or changing their water. I watch for watery eyes, redness around the ears. When winter comes, I move them into the house, then I sell the land, bit by bit. The truck. The horses. The neighbors ask me why, but they wouldn’t understand. I wander between rooms. The goats sleep in darkening corners. And after a while, I am no longer shocked to round a corner and see you, dearest mother, standing on the couch or on the dining room table. Your dress is rotted and your shoes are gone, but I know it’s you, still except for a flick of the ears, and silent as the pre-morning frost.