My mother killed her brother on my thirty-third birthday. The date has nothing to do with the crime. It’s just how to it happened. I opened presents from my husband, Tom. I tied a red ribbon from the pile of wrappings in my hair. He handed me the phone. I listened for a bit as my father spoke. I said Yes and I understand and Okay and then I hung up. Tom watched me untie the ribbon. He watched me sit down cross-legged in front of the lit hearth and go deep deep down inside myself, back to that back corner of my being.
Honey, he said. What was that about?
But I didn’t speak. I was gone. I was good at going. Doctors called it a disorder, but I called it a talent. An hour passed before I could talk, and I told Tom what my father had said, and we went to bed and didn’t rise until noon the next day.
A mother’s crime becomes her daughter’s crime. The daughter takes the film of blood and the list of charges and drapes them like a shawl around her bare shoulders. Being an only child, I got it concentrated and pure. Something to make me feel more alive before it made me feel like I was on my way to meet Christ.
For a week I didn’t say her name. The TV stayed off. The computer cold and blank in the downstairs office. I rearranged the furniture. Put the dining table in the bedroom. Moved the dresser into the kitchen. I sang through the halls and felt my heart hammer while I tried to sleep.
And then Tom turned the TV on. I divided into myself. He cooked each meal, coming home from the office during his lunch breaks. I only sucked salt off pretzel sticks, washed the plates. It was all I could do.
The things my mother did.
Ran her brother over in his driveway.
Had worked for a diner on Main Street in Portsville. Had braided my hair until I turned thirteen. Ate chocolate in her sleep. Backed up over his body. Sang me Happy Birthday each year in Spanish and French and German. Brought me books from the library when as a girl I lay in bed sick. Once raised her hand to slap me, but then lowered it. Spent Saturdays working in the community garden. Volunteered to teach Sunday School. Wore Mickey Mouse t-shirts. And didn’t talk about her brother for a year. Then talked about her brother nonstop for five. Said she loved him. Said she feared him. Said once he choked her. Once, kicked her. Hit her too many times to count.
And the piece she couldn’t get, couldn’t wrap her brain around, was on each attack he wore red. The cruelty she understood, in a way. It was their heritage. But when he came calling, a quick check of his clothes told her if she should answer the door. Or it had. Because now he was dead. And in some basement a detective peeled away a red button down and bagged it for the trial.
I should have known better. I guess some part of me did. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself who she was. Her faces confused me. Monster and Saint. Saint and Monster.
I wore my red dress to visitation. A low-cut number with delicate beadwork like a cherry-stained wedding gown. It was cruel of me, but then I would have said I didn’t do it on purpose. It was an accident. A fluke. Never mind the dress had never been worn. Never mind I took it off and on and off and on before I left.
Never mind Tom said, Are you sure? He looked me up, down.
Sure of what? I said.
Well, he said, and nodded at my chest. I thought he meant my cleavage.
I put a red cardigan on and left.
Growing up, Dr. Dern asked me where I went when I dissociated. I had many rooms up there in my divided mind, but I didn’t see how that was his business. He wanted to know what I was running from. I said I wasn’t running and he said I was avoiding the question. I said it’s not avoiding. I’m protecting myself, and he said Yes, you are a smart, smart girl.
Smart girls don’t tempt the devil. I was a bullseye, a bloody Rorschach blot, walking into the prison flaunting my muleta.
When I was ten, I watched a squirrel tease a stray cat. The critter fluffed its tail and ran circles around the bottom half of a tree, chirping like it had something to say. And the cat, ears back, pounced once and took it down. What a waste, I had thought.
A prison guard told me he hadn’t believed my mom to really be dangerous. Which was why he wasn’t paying attention when she lunged.
Was it her Southern accent? I asked him years later, when I saw him at the grocery store.
He rocked on his feet, put down a melon. Yes, I think that was a chunk of it, he said. And her smile’s a little lopsided.
You’re not the first, I said.
The scar’s a nice one, right in the middle of my forehead. It wasn’t her hands that made it, but the side of the table as she slammed by head down. Thing is, it looks like a consecration, like she had touched my forehead and given me eternal life. As if the table’s edge bestowed an undying blessing. There was so much red.
I live in the forefront of my mind now. Bent over with blood running down my chest onto the tiled floor, I knew there was no crime worse than this blessing. Two men on her, holding back her arms before she could strike a second time. Everything from here on out is holy.