Once a Mother by Stephanie Parent

Mother takes her Baby Girl to the park on the first warm day of the year. The bluebells have burst into bloom, turning familiar grass into a foreign seascape. Baby Girl wobbles with unpracticed feet on bulbous cerulean heads. She sways as if she floats atop the waves of a real ocean.

Mother loves to hold Baby Girl’s hand, keeping her steady, even if it means crouching till Mother’s young knees ache like an old woman’s. Baby Girl clenches her tiny fingers with determination: one step, then another, then another. Mother only wishes her daughter’s flesh did not stay so rigid and cold, despite the sun’s sweet caresses.

No bad thoughts, Mother scolds herself. Not on this perfect day she’ll remember forever, Mother and daughter’s first visit to the park in spring.

Mother thinks of an old wives’ tale: the sound of bluebells ringing is fairy laughter, on a frequency humans can’t detect.

In a different dimension, Mother hears the bluebells scream beneath Baby Girl’s feet. They wail as their blue skulls hit the dirt. They echo long after the pair has returned home.

Mother hears sounds from different realities, and so she can never rest. She is always aware of some child crying, on some plane of existence, and she can never be sure it’s not her child until she checks. Exhaustion makes Mother heavy, a phantom weight in her womb, till she forgets the joy of having a child here, with her, in this world.

Just when Baby Girl should be moving from a crib to her own little bed, Mother brings her to sleep in the big bed, by Mother’s side. It’s not like there’s ever been a Father to take up space here. Now when Mother hears weeping from other worlds, she has only to reach out to ensure that Baby Girl still slumbers safe beside her. Her daughter’s fingers are so small, so snappable when Mother clutches them tight between both hands.

Summer slips in before spring is half over, and Mother takes Little Girl to the beach. They play a game: Mother buries Little Girl in the sand, leaving just enough space for her miniature eyes and mouth and nose to peek out. Mother sees how far she can walk away and still run right back to Little Girl, like a homing pigeon, like the seagulls that zero in on the beach’s every edible morsel and gobble them all up.

Once, the wind whips Mother’s hair in her eyes and she loses track of Little Girl, runs in the wrong direction, till her pulse picks up with panic like the roiling waves. She listens, past the sound of the wind, till she hears Little Girl’s voice in a foreign frequency: I’m here, Mama, right here. Buried.

Mother follows the clarion call back to her little daughter. She shovels sand away till the electric pink of a bathing suit emerges, brighter than Little Girl’s skin that has not tanned, flesh that stays pale and cool.

Little Girl protests: No. Bury me all the way. Mother shakes her head but Little Girl insists, yelling in so many dimensions that they batter every corner of Mother’s brain. Until Mother gives in and shovels sand over Little Girl’s eyes and nose and mouth, just for a few seconds, just so Little Girl can test how long I breathe.

When they get home Mother is sunburned. She spends all evening brushing sand from Little Girl’s hair.

By October Mother’s tan has faded, her skin leached of color as the leaves outside caramelize, taking on the deep tones of jewels. Rubies, garnets, citrines; buried treasure, now unearthed.

Girl’s skin stays the same pale shade, foretelling snow. Girl never tanned, no matter how many hours she and Mother spent on the beach, playing sand-hide-and-seek till the sky turned black.

Mother and Girl take autumn walks. The leaves whisper prophecies in every earthly language and some from other universes. As the grass withers and the soil spreads its mineral scent, Girl breaks off bits of herself to bury. First, a lock of hair; then an eyelash, a toenail. A pinky, an earlobe. When Girl snaps her entire forearm off at the joint, Mother sighs with weariness. She’s reached the challenging part of parenting—the part where she has to make rules and enforce them. Lay down the law.

Mother digs up Girl’s forearm and locks it back into place. The click sounds like a scream in a thousand dimensions, and the turning of a key in a thousand others. It echoes deep inside Mother, low in her belly, a fusion and a rupture at once.

The exhaustion is back, the otherworld noises that keep Mother awake at night: howls of pain turned to sounds of sadness, more monstrous because they are muffled. They don’t fade even when Mother checks that Girl still sleeps beside her, one pinky missing and the other pressed against her perpetually parted lips. Lips that release no earthly breath, emit no earthly sound.

Mother hates the midwinter cold, but it doesn’t bother Doll. Doll can skip through the frost barefoot, make snow angels in a sundress; her skin will never turn blue. Her limbs—the ones she hasn’t buried, that is—will never freeze or grow gangrenous.

Mother stays in bed with the covers tight over her head, pressed against her ears. But the longer she remains here, the colder the outside world will feel when she finally emerges. The harsher its sounds will ring out.

Doll’s voice pierces the blanket, icicle sharp: I want to play the burying game. Though Doll doesn’t say it, Mother knows she wants to play outside, in the snow. Mother shivers just at the thought.

Yet Mother can’t deny her daughter anything, when it comes down to it, so she unwinds herself from her blanket cocoon. Still in pajamas and slippers, Mother cradles Doll in her arms and steps outside. Mother’s like a child exploring a fresh snowfall on Christmas morning, too excited to stop and put on clothes—except it’s foreboding that fills Mother’s heart.

No, excited is not the right word for the fidgety feeling deep in Mother’s stomach, as she carries Doll to the deepest drifts of the backyard. It has snowed so much, in the days since Mother last ventured outside. The white mounds form a fortress, reaching above the fences that separate her from neighbors to either side; she and Doll might as well be the only beings left in the world.

Mother shivers as the wet snow invades her slippers, wriggles between her toes. She tries to remember the last time she spoke to another human soul. In spring she had invited an acquaintance or two to join her and Baby Girl in the park, but everyone was too busy, had some excuse.

Maybe it was summer, one of those beach days, when Little Girl was buried and Mother was rushing back to her. She had collided with some giggling teenagers in bikinis who’d admonished her, as if they were the adults: Hey, lady, watch where you’re going. Mother had told them one day, when they had children of their own, they’d understand why she hurried.

No, Mother remembers, the last time was autumn—October, when the landlord called to say rent would go up in January. He had some units in an apartment building if Mother wanted to move to someplace smaller, since it was just her. That had seemed such an odd suggestion for a landlord to make, and Mother had half-convinced herself the call had come from another plane of existence.

Now, Mother welcomes the white blanket enclosing her, muting voices from every plane, every world. This is what she’s always dreamed of—just her and Doll, together, with no one to bother them or intrude. Though she misses the days when Doll was Girl.

Finally they reach the highest snowdrift, which nearly touches Mother’s chin and is many times the height of Doll. Mother holds Doll under one arm, plastic head and Saran hair just above Mother’s slowly beating heart. With both bare hands Mother digs in the snow, tunneling a path to another dimension. She hears voices that ring like chimes from deep below.

When the hole is deep enough, Mother places Doll inside it. It hurts to separate Doll’s head from resting against her own heart, but Mother knows this is what Doll wants. A true mother never denies her daughter, even if it means tearing herself apart.

Without thinking, without hesitating, Mother climbs into the hole after Doll. She has to curl up to fit, make herself small. She barely feels the cold anymore, but her limbs are heavy, and so is her womb. It’s the phantom weight of something that grew there—a seed that was supposed to blossom last spring, with the bluebells, but withered instead.

The otherworld voices sing lullabies. Mother hopes Doll hears them too. She hopes that in some dimension Doll is exactly where she belongs, a Girl in Mother’s arms. The voices, Mother realizes now, are seeds that never grew.

The slowing thump of Mother’s heart is an annoyance, an erratic drumbeat intruding upon the lullabies. It is taking too long to stop. It will stop, though—the time between each beat is stretching to infinities, entire lives lived in parallel universes, possibilities that will never come true.

Shh, shh, the voices say. Except— There is one that is no lullaby. One that is a child’s scream ripping across space-time, telling Mother to wake up, wake up, now. Doll belongs here, buried in the snow, but you don’t.

Mother can barely move, is barely a living human any more, but she is still a mother, and mothers always answer children’s calls. She uses every ounce of strength she has left to stretch one arm, then the other, brushing back the edges of her snowy tomb. 

Mother has no strength left, but she keeps going, a mother following the pull of a child’s voice. Perhaps it is a child not born yet, a child she will know in the future; perhaps it is Baby Girl from a past time, before the girl buried too many parts of herself. Whoever the voice belongs to, Mother must answer it, even if that means leaving Doll behind. Even if every step is like losing a limb, an organ, a beating heart.

She must keep going, because something is waiting for Mother, beyond the snow. Step by step she emerges; she moves forward, leaving tracks that will disappear like lost children’s breadcrumbs in a dark wood.

Let the footprints melt; Mother is already home.

Stephanie Parent is an author of horror, magical realism and more. Her debut gothic horror novel The Briars is forthcoming in May 2023 from Cemetery Gates Media. Follow her on Twitter at @SC_Parent and Instagram at @stephanieparent30.