Her mother is always saying inappropriate things, using her in inappropriate ways. “No one understands,” her mother says, “but you do.” She holds the daughter close and says things like, “I am so happy you will always be here. You are my darling.”
Her mother is always fussing over things, rearranging empty jars, knocking her pudgy knees against empty cupboards, searching, saying, “Look at all I do for you. Look at how I work.”
The daughter looks for things, too—bad things, wrong things. She tries to hide them, make them go away. She scrubs countertops with unsure hands, arranges items in drawers with the hopes that when they are opened no one will have to search. She is quiet, wary of the floorboards as she moves from one room to another, relocating, reorganizing.
The mother is large, a heavy body that shuffles and thuds aimlessly through the noisy hallways. Her hands are small and flat, always reaching, always grasping. Her feet are wide and slow. The way the mother rocks from side to side—never still, always trembling, floor creaking from the shifting weight—it makes the daughter nervous. Each night she waits for the sound. Discomfort settles into the daughter’s body. With each year her likeness of her mother manifests itself in her stiff shoulders, her downturned mouth, her unarched feet.
The daughter knows this house is not a real house. The mother finds things that could remind someone of a home and tries to fill the various rooms. A picture which says “The secret ingredient is a spoonful of love” hangs next to a fridge with nothing inside it. A half-filled salt-and-pepper shaker next to a grease-marked stove top which is rarely used. The mother hangs up orange curtains she has found, as if to say: we are people who have orange curtains. This is who we are.
“You are my everything,” the mother says, and she holds the daughter close.
The mother says, “I am so sad.”
The mother asks, “Why do you want to leave me?”
The daughter reminds herself to be good. As she grows each day, she swallows this knowledge, settles it deep inside. She stares into a mirror as she hears her mother thud closer and understands her role, her future. She sees her inheritance in the fullness of her cheeks, the gravity of her loosening skin.
“Come,” her mother says, and pulls the daughter close. “Lie here with me. Stay here.” She says, “You are fine.” She rocks in her sleep, eyes half-open and rolling, and the daughter waits in the chair beside her, hands hovering, ready to be used.
The mother is always showing her inappropriate things. She has visitors that come during the chill night—angry landlords demanding money, friends with red eyes and stuffed pockets, the daughter’s father, never getting out of the car but demanding that things be different. “You are crazy,” he says. “I could get a lawyer!”
The mother stays inside the house. It is the daughter’s job to go outside, barefoot into the hot desert sun, sand sticking to her swollen feet. It is the daughter’s job to return home, provide comfort. “The sun, it is too strong,” the mother says. It is the daughter’s job to provide protection. “But wait,” the daughter says, “I am still learning what to do.”
“You are a bad daughter,” the mother says, “You never take care of me.”
The mother says, “You are everything to me. I love you so much.” She sits with her head in her hands, and the daughter stands at the edge of the room—tries to give her mother some space.
People see the daughter and say, “You should forgive her. She is your mother,” as if reminding the daughter of this will change what has happened, what will happen. Each time she takes in their words as they say, “You will always love her, don’t you know that? She is your mother.”
“You are just like your mother,” her father says in his real house, and this is how she knows he is angry. He looks at the daughter’s large, growing body, watches the way she pads across his tile floor and says, “You inherited your mother’s bad things. You will inherit more. Look at you. No one will want you like this. What a mistake I have made.”
“I am sorry,” the daughter says, “I am trying.” She sleeps in his guestroom and wears stretchy clothes out of a suitcase. She is a large, misplaced decoration in his clean, color-coordinated home.
The mother is always mad when the daughter returns. “You are thinking of leaving me, aren’t you?” She says, “You are ungrateful. You are like your father.”
The mother has taught her many things. How to be needy, how to be self-righteous. She practices these things unwillingly. Her mother has made a tradition out of being wrong. Together they take up the empty space in their house.
Sound moves through the walls at night. The daughter lies in bed, eyes on the door, trying to sleep, waiting. The television is on in the living room and the mother is awake, listening, and the daughter listens for the mother. In the daughter’s room, the space between the bed and the door is not enough.
Each day the daughter is the biggest she has ever been. In school, the other children stare as her body drapes and bends over the tiny metal chairs. She folds over the stiff, L-shaped wooden desk; the pencil shrinks in her swollen hands. A cute boy stares, and she pulls at the clothes that do not fit, the clothes that her mother has found for her, as if to say: this is who you are.
The mother asks, “Are you learning?”
“Oh, yes,” the daughter says. “I am learning so much.”
The daughter moves from room to room, ankles weak from the weight. The sound the floorboards make lets the mother know she has returned home. “Here, let me,” the mother says, shuffling carefully around the daughter’s large body. “I am your mother. I am here.”
Each day the mother is the smallest she has ever been. Sickness whittles away her bones; time thins out her hair into wiry red strings. The mother’s hands, once thick but now not—still small—reach out for the daughter. Each night the daughter makes food and the mother stares at the steaming plate, as if its image will somehow make her stomach full. “Lie here with me,” she says, and pulls the daughter close. Their bodies press against one another in the dark of the living room, television casting the only flickering light, and through the fullness of the daughter’s skin she can feel her mother’s bones become hollow.
“Quick!” the mother says, “The blankets! The heater! I will freeze in this house.”
The mother is always shivering, always trembling. The daughter hobbles from one room to another, sweating and panting as she searches for the right object to use.
“Why are you so cold to me?” the mother asks. “You are as cold as this house. What have I ever done to deserve this?”
“I am sorry,” the daughter says. “I am trying.” She wraps her big arms around the mother’s shivering body. She is as big as this empty house; she is as familiar, as cemented to the ground. She takes the mother in, cradles her bones like a child.
“You are my everything,” my mother says. “See how you take care of me?”
Natasha Yglesias received a BA with a concentration in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She is a reader for Post Road Magazine and an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company in San Francisco. She reluctantly tweets @TashaYglesias. This is her first publication.