Susan Slaviero: Mother & Father
The Year of Fires and Floods
Think of natural disasters as domestic, something
smaller than in those movies where the beautiful
blonde scientist escapes a tsunami in a well-timed
helicopter with a wisecracking pilot—a love interest
to keep the story going. Instead, it’s forgotten laundry
in an overfilled tub, or a smoking muffin tin tossed carelessly
in the trash and covered with newspaper. The main characters
are my mother and father, both living a state of permanent
brain fog, and I’m the hero, but I’m also the villain.
Remember when I told you I found their pantry full of rotting potatoes
and tiny insects? Who knew I could spray so much Lysol
and not die of asphyxiation? I learned that every family lives
on a fault line, that sometimes earthquakes happen in the Midwest
and volcanoes erupt inside desk drawers filled with unpaid taxes
and half-smoked cigarettes. Should I sell the house? It feels like giving up,
like wiping history off the chalkboard and forgetting civilizations
that fall also rise, but not in that order.
Back home, they figure omens
are found in fraying curtains,
those first signs of neglect.
Dad was too busy collecting
teaspoons full of rain to remember
to pay the bills on time, if ever.
Mom hid the collection notices,
the wet, stained sheets, parked the car
so the new dents wouldn’t show.
I watched the yard for ravens,
counted sheets of paper and cracks
in the concrete. I put fresh apples
in a bowl, but still, it was always
chaos, fevers, lost debit cards,
brain fog and piles of dirt.
I combed her hair, pinned a cameo
brooch to her sweater and promised
that gravity was a certainty, keeping
everything in place, never changing.
In college, I learned it was always winter
in the underworld, that I should carry lilies
and flint knives if I wanted to remain
intact. A caw signifies imminent
fracture, the loss of a house even
when it doesn’t rain. I’d like to buy
a vowel, some consonants. I’d like to keep
a blackbird in a cage, to always know
the difference between Burger King
and Little Debbie. Did you know the first
thing you forget is how to build a sandwich?
Bread on bread on bread, like the tower
of Babel reaching halfway to the ceiling.
The plate is empty. The cup is cracked
and filled, inexplicably, with dish soap.
The History of My Family
as Told by my Mother after her Dementia Diagnosis
My father wore kilts and collected maps.
His job was to hunt sea monsters.
Once upon a time there were leviathan in public
swimming pools, a real health hazard,
and somebody had to save the world.
She says she tried to teach her children
about magical thinking as a means to salvation
but they still grew up to be alchemists and murderers.
You can tell, she says, by the dark, hooded robes
found hanging behind her daughters’ wedding dresses,
by the wands and scythes tucked in their cutlery drawers.
There are afternoons when the telling of this story
becomes muddled with the Friday night movie
and she believes we appear only in black and white,
with cigarette burns in the corners of her room, and maybe
I visit wearing a novelty shirt that says “The End”
because I am waiting for her to die. She believes
this plot originates with the birth of her second daughter.
Everyone knows that middle children are often changelings.
When she was young, my mother kept dragons on the back stoop
of her city apartment. Small ones, the size of kittens.
Her father took them away and drowned them in an aqueduct.
Irishmen are born to be cruel. He drove a truck and drank whiskey
until his liver hardened and scarred over like the rock of Sisyphus.
Like all fathers, he was a heavy burden. She just kept pushing him away,
over and over, even after he was plucked
from his bed by angels or maybe just large birds
and finally stopped calling the house in a drunken stupor.
Our grandmother had tentacles and made oxtail soup.
She chain-smoked until her own body was indistinguishable
from cancer cells and molecules of tar.
Is it any wonder our family should be descended from fallen kings
and fairy women? We carry the genes for forgetting.
My Mother Escapes her Nursing Home Dressed in Sealskin
She says she’s hanging on the edge of a boat
we cannot see, her hands broken, the pale bodies
of beluga whales sunning themselves
skimming the surface of bedsheets, grimed floors.
I promise to come back and teach her
how to cast a magic spell using only kleenex
and seawater. She believes she is trapped
in Purgatory or the Marianas Trench.
On bad days she believes herself an archetype: a madwoman
locked in the attic with nothing but spiders for company.
On good days, she believes herself an Irish spy, or a Selkie—
she says the nurses have stolen her skin.
They keep it folded under
the stringy towels, that shiny pelt
sleek and green and smelling of places
she’s never been. All she needs to do is wait.
She doesn’t sleep, anyway. It will be easy
to steal it back, so long as the wheelchair
doesn’t squeak and the nurses doze,
predictably, at the soul’s midnight.
There are mermen sleeping in coffins
the next room over. She’s quite certain. She hears
their tails swishing in the night, sees them
slithering down the gray hallways looking for salt.
She’s grown slender to facilitate her escape. She’s gone,
either to the morgue or the ocean leaving nothing but spilled saline,
a shed gown, a ring of moon. One day she’s looking out the window,
the next, she’s slid down the shower drain and returned to the sea.
Susan Slaviero is the author of CYBORGIA (Mayapple Press), Selections from the Murder Book (Treelight Books), and A Wicked Apple (Hyacinth Girl Press). Her work has appeared in Arsenic Lobster, Jet Fuel Review, Rhino, Story Magazine and other publications. She lives and writes in the south suburbs of Chicago.