In the first house I lived in, the first house my parents lived in together, but not the house in which I grew up, there was a pear tree in the backyard that I don’t remember, a chain-link fence that I do because I would peer through it and make faces at the boy who lived in the house next door, a yard with a tire swing I may have invented or dreamed. Inside, the stairwell was adjacent to the front door: a mental snapshot of my grandfather standing in the doorway, framed by sunlight, taken from where I’d sit on the stairs, sucking my fingers in a sign language I love you that would leave my two front teeth crooked. I did not yet know the phrase oral fixation. I had not yet discovered what else I could use to fill my mouth. All I knew was that I had fingers, and a mouth, and family members that appeared in the doorway. And I remember the fireplace, the fireplace and the birds that flew in through the chimney, swooping beyond the hearth and into the living room, my father chasing the dusky shape of them with a broom. In that first house, where they did not belong: my first memory of birds.
I grew up in a house other than the first one that I lived in, my father’s house. My mother left my father’s house when I was eleven and then I grew up in my father’s house and a series of addresses lost to memory, duplexes, basements, A-frames, a shack with roses growing up the once-white siding. My mother moved into a house with another man, a house with no doors and sticky-tape flytraps hanging from the kitchen ceiling. I was lost, her daughter, lost in the top bunk too close to the sloping ceiling in the bedroom with brother and another boy, the hunting rifles propped in a corner I was afraid of tripping over when I walked past, quivering and silent and woozy with the fear that those guns in the hands of the man my mother loved could be what killed me. I was lost, and my mother was in love was she was she in love or just another lost daughter?
She wanted to cry when I was born, she wanted to cry for years after. She cried and she cried on the bathroom floor on the kitchen floor in the closet sitting with her legs curled up beneath her was this the girl or the mother? The daughter cried because she could only be her mother’s, could only be her father’s, couldn’t see anything beyond the forest lining the house didn’t know what to do with whatever roamed beyond it. Who were all of those people who hadn’t let the dirt slip through their fingers who hadn’t covered themselves in sidewalk-chalk dust who couldn’t conjure the sharp stab of an acorn cap between the toes, they were everywhere, and she only wanted to know people who understood how it felt to fall from a tree. She cried.
Until a family is no longer one family but two families, two roofs to call home but only one address that rolls the word off the tongue, one daughter two parents in two places, one girl and one woman shedding each other; until a family is no longer a family but a series of people in different places at the same time, its members cannot understand the necessity of continuing to bury their hands in the dirt. Soil creates and it kills and no one can say when the pot has been filled too high when the plant is dying how can anyone know until they water and they water and they watch and try to love and all that they get are shriveled flowers, fallen leaves. Is a family portrait still a family portrait when a family is missing the mother? Not missing her, exactly, but she is missing, she knows this and the father knows this and the daughter and the son. The daughter and the son and the holy spirit; if one believes the girl can be holy, too. She doesn’t believe it but still she is given ceramic angels for Christmas, still she is dragging her feet to the body and the blood on Sundays until she doesn’t have to, she is thinking of wine and wondering if it tastes better than this she’s wanting more than just a swallow and she does not want it to be sacred. She’s seen her mother fill her cup, seen her empty it and fill it again. How much wine can be holy after that first drop? Take it from a tree like sap. Pretend to pray when the wine won’t be enough.
What she will learn about wine: enough of it will make her melt. It will become easy to make excuses when the edges of the room are sparkling; it will become a comfort to find the sparkle when she is alone; it will become difficult to explain the sparkle to anyone else after she has melted. What she will learn about melting: if she isn’t careful, the wine will no longer be enough.
A woman must develop a deeper connection to the earth because she is bound to it bound by it, she is root she is flower she is earthworm, anthill, fossil, mountain. She is daughter and she is mother and she is wandering she is seeking more than what she can grow she desires what has already been grown she wants only to take from the surface and swallow what goes down easy and remember how it felt to be born in the raging of a thunderstorm, the river outside the window swelling into a flood, she wants to destroy she wants to crash she wants to expel matter all over the goddamned floor she is overflowing into her mother, her mother’s cup is overflowing and she is choking, she is just a girl she is growing too tall too tall and too thick she wants to eat stems and leaves and memorize the shape of a nest and know where it sits she wants to be small enough to fit inside of it, she’s still a daughter, she’s a daughter and she wants to be fed.
What her mother will feed her: leftovers and white wine at room temperature in a plastic cup. Her mother makes her own ice cubes, filling the tray again with more water, another sacrifice, her mother loses sleep over what she does not give. When a daughter is raised with wine she does not forget how it tastes. She will lick her lips to soak in every drop, she will remind her mother what it means to give a girl her first taste.
Every blade of grass was another chapter in the story the girl thought she was writing. She was a character, or a composer, or a metaphor. She was running barefoot through the grass, ants crawling on her feet chiggers tearing at her ankles she was running through the sprinkler and drinking from the hose she was free and her mother was waiting and her father and she only had to be a girl and she was free. She did not know what any other words could mean.
Daughter, daughter, where are you going? Why are you leaving you are not an animal. A flock is made of feathers and feathers drift and undulate and swirl. Retard. Accelerate. A daughter will grow up and meet a man who talks to her about birds and she will believe him the way she grew up believing in her father, which is to say she knows when to understand a voice as one that is speaking the truth. Did she ever believe in a mother who scattered like so many birds shedding the weight of their skin? She will dream of murmurations and watch leaves swirl in the breeze and wonder what mechanics are specific to what animals, what plants, what women, what birds.
I wrote the story, my own mother. Wrote it because my mother doesn’t read. Where did I come from if not from the forest? Which nest did I occupy? Where did I fall when I first tried to fly? I must have fallen to have landed in a house instead of in the sky, to be collecting branches instead of perching upon them. I must have been less than a bird if it took so little for me to have fallen.
A white house that was no longer white. A tire swing on the limb of a dead tree. A concrete porch that was the closest iteration of solitude in a house with no doors and not many rooms and too many people she did not want to be around. She was crying. She was on the concrete porch hiding behind a book, her lips were swollen from being bitten for the first time the night before, she kept remembering another tongue inside of her mouth, and thought that she would puke. She was hiding in the sunlight and she was crying she was crying in the top bunk she was crying into the dirt she was crying back at her father’s house because she needed her mother and her mother was missing even when she was around. She was just a daughter. How could she have known what to do with her heart?
Can a daughter plant the woman who made her, put her into the earth to let her soak in what she’s forgotten, give her the opportunity for rebirth? I do not want to bury my mother unless she will promise to grow. Will you grow, Mom? A daughter is only looking for a tree to rest her back against, a tree that will shade her with quivering with leaves. A daughter is looking for the mother who was planted before her but there’s a hole in the ground where did she go, where did you go, Mom? I brought the wine, will that help you? Where did you go? Are daughters responsible for their mothers? I am a daughter and my mother is missing she left her roots on a farm in the woods she left them on a beach in Mexico and now I am searching, help me, Mom, find me. I am still your daughter.
HEATHER BARTEL is a writer and creator currently living in Athens, GA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her manuscript, MURMURATIONS, was longlisted for the 2019 Tarpaulin Sky Book Awards, and her work can be found in Qu. She is co-founder and editor of the literary project The Champagne Room.