Short Fiction by Katie Willis
The floodwater took Miniature Mother on a Friday. It was noon and overcast. The sun was just a bit-crease in the sky. She was down on her knees over by the open round window, desperately fingering Grandmother Mortlake’s rosary beads.
I was standing behind her in a puffball skirt with tiny Eden roses dotting the hem. I’d worn it to Fleeting Pier last month, the day we saw the seals. It shone like Polaris where I was colourless. We were tight that day. She’d held my hand so hard to snap it in two, all the while cooing and blowing kisses, saying how the sheen on those seals reminded her of the brothers she’d never had. And how my skirt was an upside-down chalice that might one day bring us bounty.
I’d worn it every other day since then. To fix her soul. She’d said it needed fixing. And in return she’d passed me half-cracked smiles and toasted corn. And wood shoe stretchers tiny as the elves that toiled to make them.
Over by the round window, Miniature Mother was all bunched up. In her oversized blue polka dot dress that made her the kind of lonely that only a man could fix, she was busy fishing with the beads, pushing them just above the sandbags to get a small splinter of sun to shine through the centre part.
“Shine. Shine. Shine it right on in,” she sang, bringing them back inside, blowing kisses onto individual beads. Blowing kisses onto one-inch fingernails that had seen better days.
She whispered to those beads that they were soft as cream when everyone alive knew that they were pink. Was it nothing but a game to her? Hungry for more, she shoved them back out for the sun to find them once again.
“Beauty does. Why won’t you shine for me, you little wonders? But look, glitter!” Miniature Mother said carried away, leaning her bony body out too far.
It took a heartbeat for the beads to slip. Took even less time for her snap-back wrists and poke chin to give her the momentum she needed. She slid out, part-voluntarily with little time left to speak except to say, “it’s God’s will, daughter. God is all the truth. If it please Him, I shall return.”
In that moment, not even trying, she became the kind of woman that water loved. She put down roots, limbs. One leg. Then the other. She spread both arms out wide, took the water as her own. Setting down her chin upon an upswell, she rolled over, the bottom of her dress ballooning to hit her mid-belly.
“I am made for such a moment like this,” she shouted, her backbone sculpted by the water to make her somewhat stronger than she was. Stronger than she would ever be.
Some kind of smoke rose from her soft white insides. She was bleeding drips of colour from her dress. Smudge-blue orbs dotted over her waist like working ants. Bold blue mountains grew out of her thighs.
“These breaks for sure Our God will fix. Blessed am I,” she said, patting the parts of her that she could reach.
Those were her last words. She stood up. Slowly. Purposefully. Walked under water, every part of her alive.
Words, tumbling out of every backbone. I made myself iron-board flat, leaning out of the square window trying to catch some of them with my hands. At fifteen, I was awkward when I could have been elegant. I was the girl just beginning to live, running up the stairs, two at a time, never pausing for breath.
Out of the landing window, I saw her turn on the corner of Moon Flint Road, and disappear. “You were sometimes a petal to me,” I whispered, wedged on the tips of my toes, spitting kisses that got lost in the crippled light and the water that had no plans on stopping.
I took off my shoes. As a mark of respect. In that moment I was nothing more than an orphan girl pressing my whole face against the wall, looking out for nothing in the terraced house she left behind.
When the floods come up you do some kind of repair work. Everyone knows that. Put some flowers on the table, pretty colours; yellow, pink, orange, and tie bunches of fresh mint to the doors. I touched my raggedy hair, pulled it out, soft at first, just the way she did when she was slipping a wide comb through it, and I let down my guard.
For a second.
That’s all it took.
Something unfurled at the top of my back, in the soft dip between my shoulder blades. Something that shook the house and I was not quite on the ground, not quite off it, out of breath, listening to the sweetest voice that told me what to do next.
Paint, it said. Paint the whole house.
I ran down the stairs so fast I almost cracked an ankle. Breathing and murmuring. Breathing and murmuring. Little for my age, I was nothing more than Muppet hair in a ratchet house, the relentless, knock, knocking in my chest, the sign of a busted heart.
Over by the kitchen sink I mixed up some paint in an old coffee mug, two small chips to the rim, no handle. I started with red and blue on the west wall of the front room. I painted furious, humming when I remembered to. I never sang. I didn’t have the breath for it. I touched my cheek, my chest, patted the side of my neck to feel myself turning softer from the inside out.
“Don’t worry, for I’m becoming the girl you always wanted me to be,” I screamed but my scream never got a chance to grow. It slipped moody into a crevice by the fireplace keeping me from a future that was mine by rights.
I painted on and on. One wall down (and I painted into very single crack) and I lashed out at the rising water. I thought I knew all about it, but I never knew how it could turn, just like that, when you weren’t properly looking. One more surge, and I peeked out through the letterbox. What I saw made me pull back. Beat my chin against the knob.
The house lurched to the left. I tried to hold on tight, two small hands on the frame. “Nothing’s ever quite steady,” I whispered.
I ran to my room to change my clothes. I stepped inside a boiler suit and over it, I slipped on the fur coat that Grandmother Mortlake gave to me on the day I turned a woman. She was a painter in Paris before Jebiah’s war and ate peaches barefoot by the mouth of the Seine, steeping the worthy stones in an onion jar to articulate a lover from scratch. She was a peach herself, in fact. That’s what I knew inside. And the fur did nothing but bolster me where I needed it most. Scarlet bold and silken to the touch, there was a tiny hole on the inner seam in the dip between my shoulder blades. That’s where hope slipped in.
I heard the sound of a wine bottle uncorking and Miniature Mother’s head popped out of the floor, her hair slick to her throat. She looked needy.
“Sweet daughterrr,” she crooned, pop-eyed and salivating. She had grasses dotting her cheeks. Grass strands making train tracks by her mouth.
“Crested Dog’s Tail. What it is. Praise be to God,” she whispered, touching some up, pushing some strands inside her mouth. She swallowed hard. And I tugged the fur around my body like a second skin bending to greet her with a tiny kiss, thinking all the while of doves set free.
Halfway down, I changed my mind. As still as the day I was born, I reached out for her and with a solid push I sent her head spinning, past the window, around the corner lamp, sliding under the bed.
“On my way out, pretty little flower child,” she said, her whiny voice rising muffled from the floorboards.
Did she mean me?
When the sun went down I made soup with leftover meat and parsnip, started to straighten the lace corners of the tablecloth the way she liked it. And that was the end of the first day.
On the second day I rose early and painted a grey sunrise on the east wall. I took up Grandmother Mortlake’s fur and slipped it on my shoulders. Outside was rain that turned to sleet but all I saw was cobalt. Cobalt grass and sky and cobalt houses in a row as the floods came up to suck them down. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something glistening. My sides went stiff and I gripped my brush. What’s to fear? I thought. I wanted something so perfect it was like an angel made it. But what I got instead was a flat-sided rock, there, growing out of the floor, fierce as the water that took her, no company with it.
What I said to that rock is not worth telling but I gave it some of the disquiet in me, so I could start over, and beating the soup with a flat spoon like it had committed a felony, I knew what I had to do.
I reached inside and without a second thought, tore out my heart and fixed it on the sill in front of me.
It was my heart. My heart, I tell you. Red as a Maple leaf, unbelievably tender. Not even the shriek of rain that hit the pane could keep me from admiring it.
It was better that way. Better to love after loss than never to love at all.
What was once inside was outside. My heart was lukewarm. Tougher than I thought it would be. Full of gristle and translucent threads that spun a lattice mesh through the centre part. I was roaming. Holding on for dear life. Busy making something out of nothing. And my heart smelled of red amaranth and rocks worn down by the salty sea.
Straddling the sink, I was dry-eyed drowsy, my left foot flattening out to form the hull of a skiff. Was I water bound? I was sure as balmy inside. And balmy with my heart outside. I kissed it once. Twice. Returned it to the sill.
“Just so you know, it’s not just a room anymore,” I shouted to anyone listening. “For I’m painting it up a safe place to keep me strong.”
“To save me from the wolves.”
They come when you least expect them.
What came out of my heart was tiny at first. So tiny that I almost missed it. There was cherry blossom at my feet when I was closing down the house for the night. I had the moon in my eyes, the fur on my back, and there, right there was an island of petals.
“Is it you come back, Miniature Mother?” I shouted, my bottom lip protruding.
The answer was in the silence.
I took my heart upstairs on a tray and when the lightning struck, and the water rose high up the outside walls, I found glitter pushed out like sludge on my dressing table. Around the brush and comb, about the push-me-pull-me mirror. I played with it to pass the time. A woman’s ring finger shot out of the wall. Not to show me the way but to give me back some of what I was missing.
The tide turns on abandonment. That much is truth. And on the third day, with my heart in my pocket, I was courteous, soft white. Brushing my hair into a ponytail, tying it with a bow to match the fur, I moved about the downstairs blowing warm breath into my hands. Some days are like that. Tender places to hide.
“Where have you been all my life?” I whispered to my heart and I held it like I might one day hold my wedding dress.
What happened next, some might say it was spiritual. I saw tiny snowflakes dusting the hall rug. I saw a small light flooding through the front window. I had the mind for that kind of smallness, and I bent down, my heart tight in my pocket, scooping up that light like you might scoop up coal. I was only taking what was rightfully mine.
“Say it. Say it loud,” I whispered, and I looked up.
No more water coming. Nothing left for you to fix.
I painted three small green stars on the west wall and put a silver moon in the top left corner. It came out fine as gossamer. I needed that. Outside, the water receded, gave back some of the land. None of that was magic because I knew it had been there all along. Besides it came back different, smaller, unbeloved.
And then one day went missing. How did that happen? Not even a heart could fix that up. I never went searching the right way. Not in fur. I was clumsy, top heavy, part-mashing my head. I fingered every crevice. Touched up walls. I scraped my nails on hinges. I loaded with wild, ice cold.
Don’t you go losing your head or you’ll be shredded to a pulp.
Those words, they splintered me. I slid to the floor and slowly, slowly, beat my palms against my head. I sobbed the child I was, the child I was forced to be. Everything happened so fast. I smeared tears across my chin to make a shape of hope. I was broken through. The house I took on was never mine to take.
I was the child dressed up in fur. But I was never shrinking.
On the fifth day I was back on track, so I tried my hand at baking. I had my heart balanced beside the stove, behind the mixing jug and wooden spoon. It flipped once. Flipped twice. Thoughts inside as big as my hand, pitch black. Who put them there? The oven timer bleated like a lamb. What on earth? I switched it off, then slowly turned my head.
There was Miniature Mother, two-thirds water at least, poofy like you wouldn’t believe. Propped up in the doorway, a space no wider than a coffin. How did she slot herself in?
“Here I am,” she said. “Back where I belong. No beads. Gave them to a passing virgin.” The rasp in her throat was water-born. She was bloated head to toe. She wanted to know if I’d prayed for her when she was gone.
“I never did,” I said.
She tossed back her neck and laughed. She was water everywhere. Water on her lungs. Water up her back. Water in her thigh bones.
“You have no fear of God?” she asked, beads of water dropping from her mouth.
“None. I have none.”
“And the things I saw along the way, you care for them?”
“I care nothing. Nothing.”
Miniature Mother hung back, disjointed. Loitered awhile, pulled faces, making shapes with her chin. “Jesus, Mary, Joseph of Arimathea.” she said. “Jesus, Mary.” She stopped right there, mid-sentence. Sprang at me. “Lost Joseph. Got a bit of hope,” she said, bouncing up and down, taking hold of one of her sleeves and pulling it wide, sending a small spray of water in my direction. “Daughter!” She was shouting then. “Daughter, you be frozen like an ice pond! And me? Me? I was all loved up out there, I’ll have you know.”
The way she hugged herself. Hugged a line of polka dots to draw me in. It was more than I could bear. I slid two steps back across the floor.
“Come, come,” she said pointing a fingernail at me. “Come see for yourself. Now aren’t I just a precious little thing?” She twirled for me. Bled water. She was shimmying hips and a pout mouth. Spindle legs and rot-away squelchy knees.
“You are not.”
“I am. Indeed, I am.” She twirled some more. Cupped her breast and stuck out a foot for looking over. “Love it!” she screamed.
“No.” I was vehement about that.
They say that water chisels you white-cold. But not Miniature Mother. No. All of a sudden, she was turning the kind of pink you find on roses, tender, delicate. No more spindle legs. No more pout mouth. Something small and almost beautiful grew out of her hand. Watching my eyes hover over it, she spelled it out for me.
“Fish bone, daughter. Ain’t it fancy? The Lord be praised.” With her free hand she rubbed it like she used to rub my back when I got sick. “For you. A gift,” she said trying to hand it across.
There are some things can never be forgiven.
“Don’t walk in like you’ve never been gone,” I whispered reaching for the wooden spoon. I raised up my heart to fight.
Patch light flooded the rim of the room. It was like seeing stars. They were my gift for her going away when I never asked her to. I started counting, the stars, the soft spaces in between. I drew Grandmother Mortlake’s fur across my chest. You can get lost that way without even knowing it.
“I saw God on horseback. One of those archangels flying from behind. Then I hitched up my dress.”
I tightened the grip on my heart.
“Yes. Hitched it up to display what good I have on the underside.” She mimed the way she drew it up. “God never saw my party parts. Still, I was all lit up for Him.” She turned her face to me, mournful. Pounded at her chest. “Lit up. Inside. Where it matters,” she whispered.
I looked at her looking at me. I watched her curtsy. Watched her kiss the air around my head like she was catching flies.
“The Lord is all for making us feel special born,” she said driving the fishbone into her tiny waist. Tipping her head. “You want to be lit up for Him?”
“I do not.”
“Don’t be the girl that’s never found. Blessed are the peacemakers,” she said putting one foot on top of the other.
She told me she had more to tell. Some advice on how to take that first leap into water. “Do it with joy and nothing else. Never provisional joy, mind. For He always knows.” She gulped in air, redeemed herself. Dribbled out water. She curtsied once again.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. I was livid through.
“Had to push those curtsies out somehow, sweet Lord Jesus,” she said.
Do you know that she was the first to break? Not that you’d guess it from looking because she went poker straight, pitched her swollen feet at me saying that maybe, just maybe, loving water was some kind of sweet mistake when you still had a daughter at home. And how she would probably not be beholden to it again. She began counting reasons off on her fish bone.
“One: It moves too fast. Two: There’s no real warmth to it. C: It takes you from those you love.” Three things down, and she asked if that was enough.
I shook my head.
“Poof, poof,” she said. She seemed reinvigorated. She was swishing her fish bone at me, making tall shapes in the air and small puddles at my feet. Puffing herself up with something greater than water. All it did was make her small. Make her a token of herself. “Are you mine to keep?” she asked looking right through me, whispering about souls that were lost, and those that were waterlogged when they could just as easily be found. If only. If only. Why, if only they turned their bitty faces to the light.
Outside the water was still receding. Light was busy growing. Some kind of display of colour lit up the sky. Thousands of colours. None of them black. And my heart was every bit shining.
It was beautiful.
I took my chance.
I was not that close to her when I started dancing. Something came over me, I don’t know what, but I felt a mighty beat in my insole. The unexpected punch of a bass that almost knocked me down. First, I was side-stepping. One. One two. The rhythm had me. On three I was busy waltzing for I was the beat and the beat was deep inside me. I tossed back my head, stroked the fur for comfort, punctuated that rhythm with a hip roll. You can fall in love like that, I swear. Deep down inside, where it mattered, I was extraordinary. And I was rousing.
“If you’ll just wait for a small moment,” I said, the words tipping out of me as my feet went even on. It’s only when you’re all wrapped up in yourself that life can start over.
Miniature Mother was looking at me looking at her. The contrary things she shouted left her saturated body, but I only half heard them. Over by the window looking out, my heart was a flash of pure light.
A short, sharp silence.
I waltzed back to her, kicked out my foot. And then? You know I think I broke her way before I split. Bending down a child, I gathered up what remains of her I could find like they might be pearls and I pressed my fingers delicate to my cheeks, smelling salt.