“I don’t like how her flesh looks,” my daughter tells me. According to Phoebe, this woman has the flesh of a winter peach. No, a robin egg. “Didn’t you see her crack while trying to pour milk into her cereal bowl?” Phoebe asks, her lip curling in disgust. My daughter hates how her yolk spills soft as blood.
Phoebe can’t be left alone with her new mother, because her flesh is beginning to rot, because she’s beginning to gather fruit flies. Something within her is dissolving into curdled milk, and that’s not the type of flesh to be trusted, my daughter says.
Either out of cruelty or curiosity, Phoebe pokes the woman’s arm during dinner, repulsed by how unyielding her skin is under her touch.
“See?” she says, waving her arms toward her. As if that’s enough proof she’s defective.
What we don’t mention during dinner: that this woman is my daughter’s third mother. That somewhere between yesterday and today she arrived in a box on our front porch, that I carefully unwrapped her body from the plastic alone despite the tradition my daughter and I made to do it together, that I like the green dress she’s pre-packaged in so I don’t take it off, not yet, not even when the sleeves tear. That despite the fact she needs nothing to live (only the occasional sunlight, according to the manual), I leave her black coffee in the mornings and I pretend her existence is essential, like the geranium pot left on our stoop by the first mother.
It’s the summer Phoebe begins asking for a jellyfish. A part of me wishes she desired more conventional childish wants, like a pony or a dinosaur, but she resigns toward wanting jellyfish. For her eighth birthday, she will accept nothing less. Already her obsession with jellyfish grows into necessity: she checks out several books on the history of jellyfish from her school’s library. She tapes crayon drawings of jellyfish on our fridge, even if scribbling circles with wiggly appendages have reduced her favorite pink and periwinkle crayons into nubs. She refuses to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, even if her newest mother explains strawberry jam is not, in fact, made from jellyfish. Days before her birthday, her want for a jellyfish becomes so inconsolable she refuses to eat anything. With reluctance, I coax her into eating peanut butter and into yet another promise: “How about we go to the beach tomorrow, huh, kiddo?”
This is after she reminds me about her mother’s flesh. No longer is it a robin egg or a winter peach’s flesh; no, today, it’s wet dove feathers and my daughter’s unhappy. My new mommy is shedding, she says. Phoebe’s blankets are filled with remains of skin and curly hairs. Now she’s scared of her, because her mother is demonstrating signs she’s transforming into a snake.
Her mother eats orange rinds and olive pits alone in the kitchen, her fingers slick with the molasses she used to bake cookies. Lately, she’s been hungering for squirrels and fresh maple sap, though how I’m supposed to feed her cravings escape me. Instead, I leave her on the veranda, where she shrivels into the winter peach Phoebe feared she would become.
We go to the beach together, all three of us. Phoebe is distraught now because she thought “we” included her and I only—not her new mother. Even in the sweltering heat, the new mother wears her green dress. She does not complain about the heat. She does not complain about anything, she only holds my hand, her thumb tracing the pink outline of my palm, because that is one of the many methods the manual lists as “Ways Your Child’s NewMother™ Will Love You, The Spouse.” Anyway, her mother pulls away quickly, dusts her hands onto her dress, before licking the sand from her thumb. Her eyes are tired, her lips dry, her breaths oddly shallow and slow.
Phoebe shoots a dirty look at her. Her mother, ashamed, staggers back onto her feet, before announcing she must catch a jellyfish. “It’s a matter of life or death,” she says, not quite looking at my daughter.
Phoebe says nothing. She slides her hands underneath the water, only to find shards of light caught on the restless waves and a shattered seashell. Meanwhile, her mother braves against the waves, until her entire body is consumed by blue, until the blue laps at her shoulders and nothing surfaces but a head and flailing arms. However, in her hands she holds a handful of seaweed and pebbles. She smiles, her white teeth glinting against the sunlight, while Phoebe cries, though tears do not roll down her cheeks. She is saying something about her mother’s flesh, about how she’s become a boat, something else about water, about drowning, about won’t you please, please, please go and get my jellyfish, daddy, please? But my heartbeat swims to my throat and my ears and I can’t hear anything, only a machine trying to sputter back to life, only silence, only splash as the body in the green dress is swept away. I manage to tame my heart for a moment, enough to muster the strength to look at her body bob away, enough to hold my daughter’s hand trembling against mine.
While I shield my daughter’s eyes, she tells me she doesn’t like how her mother’s flesh looks in this light either. But she doesn’t cry. Nor does she ask about jellyfish anymore. With a slight smile, she asks, “Is that weird new mommy gone forever this time?”
I tell her yes as we stand there watching the new mother drown, because there is no way she could replace the first or second or the next mother, because I need something to stop listening to how the water stifles her robotic screams. All the while, I don’t tell my daughter at home there’s probably another package waiting for us at the door. A fourth mother just waiting to take place of the last and finally make our family feel somewhat whole again.