But My Mother Told Me
You have to know you want it. When I was four we would visit a friend of my mother’s, a woman who looked like Stevie Nicks. Blonde, curly hair and coal over her lids like a queen, like Cleopatra. I remember a turquoise shimmering blouse. She was always laughing smoking crying.
Her name was Xenia and she had a husband and they had a cat name Taisa, after a repentant courtesan from Alexandria who became a saint. Yefremov wrote a book where the Whore Taisa of Egypt becomes Ptolemy’s Egyptian queen.
Xenia and her husband could not conceive. They fucked and fucked and pills and money but nothing grew. How does it matter how I knew? There were nights my mother visited without me. These nights Xenia cried in the kitchen and my mother cooed and cried with.
Taisa was a Siberian cat, a gift for Xenia after another wouldn’t carry. Puffy and regal with a round face, stretched long across the couch, in waiting. Xenia chopped raw beef shock-red and cold, pooling with blood into Taisa’s bowl and Taisa ate it quick and lapped up the blood. Red blotted her soft white throat.
I marveled. I was a frustrating child, I leapt at dogs, draped my arms over their tired necks. I chased cats I wanted to pet. Taisa did not allow for this. There was no touching her except for Xenia, who fed her meat and fresh milk. Taisa was the only living thing I have known who did what she wanted. Taisa loved to fuck. Spring she’d sneak out of the living room window and disappear for a week, two. Xenia went looking for her at first, then she stopped because Taisa would always return. Then she’d sleep and eat for three whole days.
Nothing but sleeping and eating. Sleeping and eating. She’d wander into the kitchen and lay across the floor and scream. Six in the morning.
Xenia said often, I’d kill her if I didn’t admire her so much.
Taisa would come home and summer she’d screech, heavy as a rock, around the apartment, and kittens would come. Xenia would line the bottom dresser drawer with blankets and Taisa would climb in. Paws the size of my palms. Claw and screech and screech, blood on her chin.
Xenia delivered Taisa’s babies. Tiny, bloody things she wiped a little and handed quickly back to mother. Anybody else came near the kittens and the mother hissed and puffed her tail and frothed heavy from her mouth. Xenia was allowed. To carry meat to the mother, to carry milk.
A purebreed. A princess. The house needed vacuuming constantly, fur accumulated everywhere. A diet of raw meat and fresh milk. The neighbors ate worse was a common remark. My mother and I did.
A woman like that fucking nobodies. Fucking alley cats. Mangled strangers. You couldn’t come near her until you couldn’t get close enough.
A cycle of this. Taisa was consistent. Xenia kept a list. People called come springtime asking for kittens and got in line.
Xenia nursed the pretty things with mother until time came, then Taisa got bored and Xenia quietly quickly gave them away.
Taisa went away again.
We had a cat too. Mishka. She was orange and nice and big. Greedy like Taisa, always sneaking out of windows. She came back pregnant. My mother called and took instructions and prepared to deliver the babies like Xenia had. Careful as she could.
My mother had turned away, cleaning one little one and turned again to see a tail sticking out of Mishka’s mouth. Blood around Mishka’s chin. She’d swallowed one little one whole. Cracked through bone she made, through blood she bled.
I had to watch Mishka, I was told, but not why. My mother bundled up the rest of the kittens and took them to our balcony, warm and soaked in sun. Then to my grandmother’s house. There she fed them milk from a dropper and raised them away from their Cronus mother.
Their Cronus mother. My mother asked around and the women in her town shrugged and some looked off and made blade-thin jokes like, If only I could do that.
So, my mother told me, there is nothing biological about want.
My Mother, Brokenhearted
Went to visit a friend by the water, determined not to let her grief be seen in the town where she lived. Where the heartbreaker man lived.
There, on the beach, she was tanning and crying beneath her sunglasses. She was sitting and reading on the outside. A strawberry between her fingers she bit but otherwise she was uninterested.
A man sitting on the rocks was watching her. My mother’s friend, a woman who soaked herself in perfume even for a day on the beach, reported it. My mother had fallen in love for the first time in her life and the man she had fallen in love with was off to marry another woman at the mandate of his mother. A hideous brunette. In her telling of this story I always want to stop her and ask, how could this not have turned you off indefinitely? But I know now that the heart is exactly that, the heart.
The man left the rocks, he approached. He was alone in the seaside town and wanted to know if perhaps the two ladies would like an ice-cream, or a coffee by the boardwalk café.
My mother was shy and beautiful with dancer’s legs and a beautiful tan from just days in the sun. She would have been wearing a pair of rosegold hoop earrings. She would have been smoking with this nibbled strawberry in her hand.
The man looked straight at my mother when he asked these things. Would you like an ice cream? Would a coffee be nice right now? In the shattering sunlight the man, as a gesture of openness, as an act of vulnerability, removed his sunglasses to address my mother. His voice was slow and low. He spoke softly, like a birdwatcher. He wanted to come closer but he knew very well to be patient, to be soft-footed. These are the things she could feel even now, so many years later.
The perfumed friend did the arranging. The man was returning home the following day and he wanted to meet for a cocktail that evening. My mother only half-heartedly participated in the conversation. Enough to be polite but it could have been a scarecrow she was speaking to. My mother was wholly gone. Sunglasses on.
Evening came and they met at a small café not far from the water. My mother’s perfumed friend dressed and reiterated that this was for my mother’s benefit only, this meeting.
When the man saw them approach, he stood up. My mother saw him then for the first time. He said, it is nice to see your eyes.
A beautiful man. Wolfish grey eyes and hair he swept nervously back, thick and dark and slightly peppered. So she knew he was older. Fifteen years. Nearing forty when my mother was a mere twenty-five, her heart in her hands. He had groomed brows, dark and thick. A feminine mouth. His cheekbones, like my mother’s, high. Already a slight wrinkle around his eyes.
My mother tucked a strand of hair back. She wished that he would touch her, touch the curve of her ear.
They took drinks and sat at a table. The man and my mother was one event in time and the perfumed friend, my mother, and the man another. She was a good sport, the perfumed friend, yet they made inorganic effort to keep her in the conversation.
My mother was in love and the man was in love and it was in the air and concrete. You could use the matter of their love to build objects.
The man said to my mother, smoke in his eyes, I am a married man with a child. He held my mother like a ruby in his hand. He was staying in a hotel, yes. Alone, yes. He would not go to the hotel with my mother, no. He was blind with love for my mother, yes.
This, at five in the morning, near the humming of the sea. The boardwalk full of drunks and lovers. He was preoccupied with soothing her through the sadness, his and her own. He tucked her hair behind her ear. He asked if she knew how beautiful she was, if she understood how difficult it was, now that he had met her, and he pressed her palm against his chest.
This, he said, this because I tucked a strand of hair behind your ear. You will ruin me.
My mother’s perfumed friend had given up and gone home. Neither had noticed.
The man took my mother to the perfumed friend’s door. He kissed her forehead and cursed his luck. He boarded a plane. All morning she watched the sky. When she told me this story it was to show her gratitude for the man, for his restraint when she was neon with want.
My Mother Said
A little salt won’t hurt, a little salt is a good thing.
My Mother Reminds Me
About when I was little and I had some ideas about babies. They were blue or pink and often swaddled in blankets. I wanted one. I wanted something to play with. I nursed a hushpuppy until I got bored.
Nothing about a child stuck to my breast appeals to me. I told my mother and she understood.
It hurts, she said. I hadn’t asked but she told me.
When My Mother Miscarried
She took us to a psychic. The woman was old and tough-looking. Skin that worked to stay on. I was to see her. My mother said there were things she herself could no longer understand.
A baby abandoned her. This was the mythology around the apartment. She crawled into my bunkbed and I pulled the word apart root from flower. Miscarriage. I didn’t understand what was missing. It used to mean to come to harm.
She made like to pull herself up and next morning she pulled on a pair of cherry red shorts and scrubbed the apartment. A song the chorus of which was leave me alone was on repeat like a knick in the record. Hours of this, her husband said. But he was frightened. He went away.
I dressed in black not for the three-month old baby brother but for a psychic at nine at night.
It was a nice apartment only because the ocean rushed in the windows. The water growled and there was ample moonlight that night.
The psychic left the living room lights off and told me to stay put. I bumped against the furniture and inspected trinkets in the dark and thought to steal them but worried since she may have been a witch.
I cracked the window open and the wind shook the curtains.
The psychic’s books were all in Turkish. I looked at the words. Blocks I could not read. There were lamps throughout the room, scattered among the books, but the woman would have given me light if I was meant to have it.
From Where My Mother
And the psychic sat there was the sound of sobbing. I certainly thought they had been laughing until my mother emerged puffy-eyed and I could smell salt on her breath. She kissed my forehead. I was twelve and it was eleven pm.
The ocean was quieter. If there was any kind of magic in the water surely I would have seen it.
My Mother Received
Messages like black boxes she peered into. Messages from the psychic. I was afraid to ask but what I was supposed to do on that train ride home? The seats were dirty and orange and my mother looked out of place. She had worn heels to meet the psychic. We would have gone to church in less. I hid a run in my stockings as best I could, I remembered too late when we walked into her house. I hid the sleazy blue streaks in my hair with braids.
He is poisoning me, my mother said. The fucking husband.
I focused on the empty orange seat across from us. The moon is so rarely that color.
There were other things. She was to stop salting her food for two weeks. She was to wear an emerald, just a tiny stone but larger if she could. My mother was not to try again with this man. My mother was to eat fruit, the kind thick with seed. Melon I suggested.
Abundance, my mother was told, is to be invited in.
Nothing, my mother was told, is not as intended.
The three-month-old that came to harm came into the psychic’s room and apologized to my mother, she told me later. She leapt into the air and hugged what came to harm.
Darina Sikmashvili was born in Lubny, Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, New York. As of fall 2020, Darina is pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. She’s at work on a novella about insomnia. Contact her at email@example.com. Find her on Instagram @dvs_primary.