Fiction: Kami Westhoff
Until We Surface
The quease in our bellies rises and recedes with the water’s insistent motion. We close our eyes, beat back the bile with an onslaught of swallow. For Andrew it’s worse, of course. He opens the kitchen window and vomits. His mother is a pinprick for now, but her motion snags the sky, tears it into a woman-shaped hole. As she rows toward us, the water splits at the oars’ insistence. Andrew wretches again, and we feel it burn from belly to brain.
It reminds us of the chalky tang of road trip medicine, so we swallow its memory to ease the nausea. When his mother reaches us, she steps from her boat to our porch and the water heals itself. Her eyes are fat with hope. Andrew closes the window, stomps upstairs. His mother clomps on the steps like a drunk, the sea not yet ready to release her. Her shirt gapes open and shows her breasts. We remember the soft skin of aureole against our newborn lips. We taste her milk surge into our mouths, suck hard until the hind milk relents and coats our tongues.
Andrew, she shouts, already our bellies are full of only echo. She looks at us, pulls her shirt together and tries to button it with water-logged fingers. The shirt falls open again, milk trickles from her nipples. We suffer the sight. We tell ourselves it would only sour our tongues, curdle in our stomachs, but we are stupid with want.
Andrew, please. Andrew screams into the face of his pillow. We are proud of him—one of us showed him this trick after the last time his mother came and he carved canyons into his throat to let the air in. He is getting stronger.
His mother collapses on our porch. When she lifts her head to call his name again, we see the slivers scattered across her face like Braille. One of us is blind. We hear the upstairs window creak open, vomit splat onto the stairs of the porch. We open the door—she is too weak to make a move. We kick her and she rolls down the stairs. Her head thuds against each: one, two, three, four. We use the oars to unshore her boat and, though one of us wants to keep them, send her off with nothing but the mood of the sea to guide her, we toss them in. She is soon that same pinprick. Andrew finds a place on the couch. Though he will always be six, his hair long ago shocked itself white. We know he was old enough to undo his carseat when he died, but not the safety locks. In case he gets another chance, we showed him the ballpoint pen to the window trick. If you do it just right, we say, the glass will shatter and you might survive.
We lift him light as a feather, stiff as a board. His body is heavy as ten, water-logged and given up. We carry him up the stairs, careful with his head when we turn the corner into the bedroom. We lay him on the bed and tuck him warm. He opens his mouth, gulps at the air, coughs. We tell him how brave he is. We tell him we don’t know if we could’ve resisted. He coughs up something—it is slick and dark and we pretend to not notice.
We hear a scream outside and think it’s his mother, but when we look out the window we see the sky has unstitched itself from the sea. Mountains crag the sky and our breath exposes the air. Our lips blue. We scatter and search—there are drawers everywhere—mittens, hats, scarves, blankets. Ice pricks our tongues, settles heavy on the branches of our lungs like birds. One of us says we should, so we hum to thaw out our throats.
We pause to breathe under the warmth of the blankets, but the tune carries on. The humming spills over us, the scent of it reminds us of Saturday mornings. We move to the window, the blankets shoosh when they hit the floor. The world is a blizzard, and another mother sits criss-cross applesauce on the snow. A somewhere sun glints against her sunglasses. She sees us, waves us near.
Sarah, Nathan, she says. Do you know them? Are they here?
We open our mouths, close them around the heat of her words. The ice in our lungs melts and we cough them dry. Sarah and Nathan are here, but we block them from the sight of her.
Be strong, we say. Take our blankets.
Our skin reddens, we scratch until our fingernails are filled. We pick them clean and scratch again.
She says, I’m here to save you.
We think it might be okay to approach her. What’s the harm? We smell the tang of her and feel the press of her fingertips on our bellies, necks, the pits of our arms and knees. Our bodies writhe beneath the fleshy pads of her tickle. We giggle until we choke and the cough is back.
Sarah, Nathan, she repeats. It’s not a question this time.
One of us slips in the snow, and the rest of us fall like a joke. One of us throws a snowball—it explodes against her face. We press snow into perfect spheres—our aim is what we would like it to be. A snowball connects just right, and her nose cracks and scatters blood across the snow. It melts in our mouths before we notice our faces buried in the white. The cold will twinge our teeth for hours, but the warm rust of her blood coats our throat like honey. Calms our cough. We remember the hum of humidifier. The gentle burn of Vicks on our chests. Coughing into the crooks of our elbows. Sick days with juice on the couch, the cool of our mother’s wrist against our foreheads. The mother is gone when we are done with the memory. Sarah and Nathan watch from the door. For a minute, we lost ourselves, and they watch us with you-know-better faces.
We put on dry clothes. We talk about where we went wrong, but we know we wouldn’t do anything differently. We make hot chocolate, knock on their door.
We are sorry, we say. We lost ourselves.
They don’t answer. We drink the hot chocolate and sing the song we know Nathan sang to Sarah before they fell asleep in the blizzard waiting for their mother to come back. She’d driven miles by the time their bodies finally relented. We wait at the door in case they forgive us.
When the door opens, we immediately regret our step inside. The room is a tunnel, its walls become ceiling become floor. We are all elbows and knees and shoulders, so some of us press forward into the cool dark. A click startles us, and we spill over one another. Those of us in front are mowed, faces stamped, ribs snapped, one of us ruptures a spleen. We apologize, of course, but press on, knowing the healing will come regardless of being wanted.
One of us shouts, No! The other way! We slip our hands under the armpits of the trampled, drag them until they’re made again. The tunnel is longer than we first thought. It gives us time to think, to remember what it reminds us of, and then we are in our new swimsuits, chlorine seeping through our skin into memory, throats thick with scream, bellies full of laughter. Waterslides. We still hope. We still live in the forgotten longer than we should. We still expect the pool’s surface to split open, let us in, hold us under, rise us until we surface.
We smell something sweet then see her at the end of the tunnel. She is holding waffle cones. Our tongues burrow and ice cream drips onto our shirts before we can say We’re not allowed.
Mary! The mother says, and we still our tongues. Mary shits herself, the force of it sounds like gunfire. Her mother shows us her empty hands.
See, she says, turns her palms up like we’ve asked to read them. You can trust me.
Mary is still shitting, her mother’s hands again hold cones. We smell the sweet on each other’s tongues. Chocolate areoles our mouths, the valley between our thumbs and pointers stained dark. We lick the sweet from each other’s hands and mouths.
Mary is too weak to walk, so we take turns carrying her on our backs. Her mother follows us, carrying baby wipes, a pair of pink and white leggings, cream to cool the raging rash.
Mary, her mother says. I only want to help you.
Mary’s diarrhea is more like urine now—it drips in a steady brown from her shoes. One of us notices the foam spilling from her mouth, her eyes are only whites. She died when she was three, so she suffers more with body than mind. Her want of mother is more like thirst, or the urge to gag when a finger is down your throat. She is our favorite. She’s is so often compelled by happiness—giggles when we lift her above our head, spin her helicopter. We argue over who gets to read her favorite books: On the Day You Were Born, I Love You Forever, Where the Sidewalk Ends. She draws pictures of us—huge eyes, arms and legs like spiders, smiles big enough to swallow our heads.
I didn’t mean to, her mother says. Suffering has left her mother more bone than body, but that’s what you get, isn’t it? Mary is convulsing now; things have gone on too long. We wonder about the length of her mother’s tongue. We wonder if her throat and stomach have rawed and blistered like Mary’s. We wonder ourselves deep, drag our nails against her esophagus, kick holes in her gut so the acid leaks out. We think, Now you know what it feels like.
The one of us that was carrying Mary calls us off, promises she’s okay. We are quickly with her—she scoops applesauce into her mouth, nibbles crust-less toast between each bite. We clutch our bellies and sad our mouths—the ice cream won’t work again, we promise. We are sorry, we say, we wanted.
Mary is back to herself before we wipe the applesauce from her chin. We know trauma has carved into her mind, tucked itself away to later affect her in unpredictable ways, but since none of us age, there isn’t a later for her, so we worry simply about the present, which seems to burst in every direction. We wonder if our mothers felt this way—the incessant throb of the present like a sliver under a fingernail.
It isn’t always like this. There are times when the mothers leave us be. We use these times to prepare for the next visit. We read books on parenting. We play games that encourage logic: rummy, chess, dominoes. Games that ask us to understand the motivations of our opponents before our opponents understand their own. We talk about our fathers, our grandparents, our siblings who were spared. Though they each failed us, we’ve forgiven them. We swear if we saw them again we wouldn’t ask Why didn’t you save us?
Our house makes much more sense during these times. When we take off our tennis shoes in one place they stay there until we lace them up again. If our foot slips out from under us on the stairs we land at the bottom. We brush our teeth first and last thing, floss when the brushing isn’t enough. The weather is mild, but we stay inside, for fear of how quickly a sky can tear itself open and let in the storm.
We are coloring when we hear barking. A dog! We imagine our own or the one we always wanted and run to the door. A golden retriever pants on the porch, a stick wedged under its paws. It looks at us, tilts its head and whimpers. We collapse, bury our noses into its fur. It rolls over, trusts us belly up. This could be it, we think. Is it finally over? We jump into the water, hold our palms for the tiny fish to swim into. Our dog, now a black lab, paddles past us toward the stick. We see our friends carving their names into the sand. We swim to shore and scatter. Some of us lift rocks and catch what cowers below. Some build towers of stones.
We hear laughter, deep and measured. Its octave stills us, and we are back in our house, peeking out the front door, foot-shaped pools at our feet. We gasp and push each other out of the way and gasp again. A father. We’ve heard this is possible, but never seen one. He sits on the steps of the porch facing away from us. In the sky, birds’ wings split the air into something new. Trees have sprouted high and ancient all directions. We remember searching for mushrooms at the base of alders with our fathers. Brushing the leaves away as if they covered something precious. Irreplaceable. We smell the onions hissing in the pan, see the fork of our father lift the mushrooms to our mouths, Just try one bite …
He stands, and we are in a tent. We lie flat, zip the sleeping bag to our throats, wiggle deep in its cave. We hear the sounds of a thousand creatures waiting to eat us. We inch our bodies close to the father, whose back is toward us. When we are close enough to smell what we know is only his scent, to scuff our cheeks with the stubble on his, his arm reaches back and pulls us tight.
We think we must’ve fallen asleep, because of the crick in our necks and taste in our mouths. We sit up, but the ceiling is too low, so we lay flat. Some of us smell the hiss of fire and flesh, some of us feel the flames’ insistence. We reach for our father, but only find the skin of each other, the temperature and texture of cheese pizza. We reach in the other direction, and flesh gives way to our fingertips like rotten fruit. One of us screams, and the air that presses it forward smells like mushrooms. We think we should move, but we still feel the touch of our father’s hand on our backs where he could feel the insistence of our breath, the beat of our heart, the twitch of a just-asleep fall. We stay in his touch for only the tick—we are back on our porch before the tock.
Those of us that didn’t have fathers open the door. We are more mush than muscle, more twig than bone, but they are careful to keep us together. They prop us up on couches, bring us things that were once our favorites: Doritos. Red Vines. Root Beer. None of us knows whose father it was—we never saw the face, so each of us claim him as our own. We know his scent, and that scent is the memory we can trust. He belongs to so many of us, we all share—even those that never knew their father—stories about him. We lie. We tell the truth. We retreat into the memory of their touch when the words get too hard to speak. We remember things they never did, forget the things they did. A father. We think this visit must mean something. We wonder if someone isn’t being honest about how they got here. We look at each other for the smear of lie on our faces, but of course, all of our faces are smeared with the tragedy of the mother.
Maybe he has come to protect us, one of us says.
Some of us laugh at the idea, others, though not prone to violence against one another, think of the stitching of one lip to another for the utterance. No one here believes any father had a chance.
This break from the mother has weakened us. We lie on the floors, our bodies S’s and T’s and H’s, and wait. Some mothers never come, and though we’ve all seen the cleaving their visits leave, we wait for them like a last-one-picked-up child. From what we guess, only the mothers that would do it again visit. That we exist, somehow, gnaws at them, keeps them from moving on to wherever it is they should go. We think we suffer most, those with these mothers, but who really knows the slam of ache another feels, or why.
At some point, we dream. We aren’t sure we’ve done this since we’ve been here. In the dream, we hear light laughter, the tink of glass to glass. Outside, they’ve spread out blankets on the expanse of a lush lawn. They wear sundresses and sunglasses. Some have hats with brims as wide as their bodies. They show each other photos, drawings, bracelets and necklaces heavy with beads. They lie on their left sides and rub their huge bellies and in the dream we are born.
A scent, irony, musky, thick—like we imagine a body smells on the inside—enters the house. A thrash of wings, caws and squawks and shrieks, sucks the air from the sky. Something smashes all the windows of the house but there is no glass for us to be careful. The quease is back, so we look out, expecting to find the sea, but only see the underneath. We hold hands, piggy-back our littlest, and move toward the stairs. We leave this place often, but never because we mean to. We are cautious on the steps, which crackle like fire with the weight of us. Fish have stopped gasping for air. Seagulls tear into them, crabs feast on the bits left behind. One of points at the dark mound of a whale in the distance. Jellyfish deflate into unremarkable blobs. Their bodies, like transparent organs, jiggle from the poke of our feet. One of us warns they can sting you, even after they are dead. We wait to feel the slam, slit, surge of a mother. We try to remember something other than the now. Did we have a pet fish? Drop crabs through the sharp mouth of a pop can and shake it to make music? Did a seagull swoop down to steal the bread from our picnic? We crave the taste of nothing. Our lips don’t gape for the warmth of a nipple. The hair on our skin doesn’t prick with the want of touch. Something must be about to happen, we think. Or something must’ve happened before this.
We wander among the animals. Press outward into the whatever. We no longer feel the doughy palms of each other, or the pressure of the arm to throat of a piggyback. If someone were to look down upon us, they might say our bodies formed unlikely constellations. Or they might say we shouldn’t be down here alone. Or they might say it looks like something might’ve been there once, and wonder how it ever managed to survive.
Kami Westhoff’s work has appeared in various journals including Meridian, Carve, Third Coast, The Pinch, decomp, Phoebe, Sundog Lit, and Passages North. She teaches Creative Writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.