OUR MOTHER, A BOOK IN HER HANDS
J. A. Tyler
Late last night rain pattered on the gutters, rivulets tracing shingles, and we heard the mewling of a lone cat, what sounded like a stray rubbing the sill of our front door, begging a bit of fish, but when we crept down to see, to maybe cuddle it in our arms, holding the warmth of a feline body against our chests through the night, Our Mother was standing in the kitchen, the oven on, kettles and pots boiling atop the stove, the tiny light of her sewing machine unlit.
Our Mother with a book on her lap is so different than Our Mother with a needle and thread, the delicate pinch of ghostly finger and thumb on a single page, mid-turn, instead of her draper’s hands assessing a fabric line.
Our Mother has been reading this tome of images and diagrams and texts for days and days and days. She chews the words, swallowing sentences with tea. She is learning about the oldest occurrences, where samples have been found, what techniques were used, the difference between arid incidental mummification and purposeful incisions. She is learning about the manganese black paint, the red ochre, the final stages of mud coating and bandaging. She is learning about stick binding and organ removal. She stares into the images as if lost, a ship at sea.
The rain in this township, above Our Mother’s head, falls forever.
Our Mother learns how they used vegetable fibers, animal hair, earth. Our Mother reads about the treasures left behind, these children who were the first instances of mummification, the grave trinkets surrounding their bodies, clutched in sacks at their feet or tied lovingly to wrists no longer made of bone and flesh.
The children, Our Mother looks so deeply into their faces, into the pages holding the calmed eyelids and smoothed faces, it’s as if she is falling into the moon, a wonder so strange and beautiful the gravity is impossible.
In the morning, we found Our Mother shrouded in a kitchen steamed with the vigorous cleaning of various pots and kettles, like the fog that tendrils across our township.
We wave our hands in the air, trying to find Our Mother in the cloud of the kitchen.
Eat we hear her say, catch a glimpse of an arm pointing us to the table, perched on the edge of her shores, Our Mother inventing new forms of banishment.
We eat through bowls of breakfast that aren’t the same as whatever she was cooking late last night, stewing up under silver lids, placing in glass jars that now look like blanched greens or root vegetables or cast-offs. We eat and watch Our Mother move swiftly from kettle to pot, pot to kettle, sink to cupboard to the rings of jar mouths. We catch wafts of raspberry and dirt, rhubarb and turnip and copper, other less traceable smells, scents beyond our knowledge. We spoon spoonfuls and dig curiously at Our Mother’s shoulders.
Next to the jars we see as we sit and spoon up is Our Mother’s book, open to a middle section where she looks at one page then another, glancing between moments of the text, studying images then turning to her jars, eyeing them with a tincture of excitement and hesitancy. The insides of one jar are red, pearlescent. Another brown. Another still lighter brown with chunks of white. One is yellow, marigold, flecked with grain or granules.
Some jars Our Mother touches or holds or shakes or cups her hands around, bringing them to the book, skirting between one page or another, weighing the contents, separating an inventory of what look to us like inventions.
The rain settles to a drizzle and the waves on the shore through the curtains and our bay window are beautifully, religiously tepid, advancing in rhythm.
We cannot tell whether Our Mother is happy or sad this morning, full-bodied or ghostly. We have, for the moment, lost hope of recognizing Our Mother.
We are thinking this, stirring her body against our eyes when she turns with a jar in hand, a slim and short one thick with red beaded shadows, spins the ring and pries the lid from the glass. There is the faintest release.
She places the jar on the table and we strain, looking up and into it, attempting to reveal its contents when Our Mother heavily lays a plate of toast and butter knife on the tabletop, startling us. She waits and watches, one hand on her hip, where we’d swear we could see the texture of her apron straight through.
The jar is raspberry jam. We spread it on our toast. By the time we bite in, Our Mother’s attention is back to the pages and the other jars on the counter.
First, she slit the cat’s throat, a small and quick threat to the softest spot beneath its chin. She held the cat’s legs tightly to her body with forearm and bicep, like furious bagpipes, its claws only momentarily stabbing through her light cardigan then relinquishing, sooner than she expected. The cat’s head and throat she held squarely above a roasting pan she’d set on the table, where she rightly assumed the blood would run.
Blood drained, Our Mother rested the body, chest upward, on the counter, buffeted beneath by a layer of butcher paper, slightly lipped at its edges to diminish the chance of run-off. With a large knife, she severed each leg from the body and the head at the neck, neatly on the throat’s previous red smear. She laid the six pieces apart then, though still in the specter of a cat, only with gaping pauses between each segment.
She spent most of the night, the hours on hours, completing the process. She shaved the fur from each leg with the sharpest blade, she removed layers of flesh from rounds of bone, she removed organs to awaiting kettles and pots. She took out one of the cat’s eyes then remembered how most eyes were left intact, lost only through the slow stew of time against a watery organ. She did not remove the other. She flattened the cat’s skin and dried it slowly in a warming oven. The bones she scourged by hand in near boiling water, brush to bone, then burned them nearer yellow in a shallow dish. Some organs she pureed and others she baked and others she stewed and others she whipped into billowy gelatinous masses. The blood she left coagulate until it was nearly solid.
Later, Our Mother reassembled the bones inside the dry skin and flesh, added sticks and tied twine, reinforced the now open cavities with vegetable fibers and the cat’s loosed hair. The long rapturous incisions down each limb were then sutured with her most loving stitches, thread red as a maiden’s dress. And Our Mother refilled the chest with sackcloth pouches of pureed and baked and stewed and whipped organs, topped with twined ribbons, measuring the weight of each as she reinserted it to the proper places. Then again the surroundings were stuffed with vegetable matter, animal fur, and the needle, the hand-stitching, the finishing off of the penultimate section.
Our Mother did not shave the head. The only damage to its face was the one missing eye she’d scooped out then tried to return. To feel better about the mistake she’d placed a patch of black fabric over the mess, the pirate irony not lost on her, even in this pinnacled moment. And when the body was done, the limbs rebound and closed, the chest clamped with thread, she carefully worked up a simple mixture of mud, the blackest soil from the spruce forest of this township, rainwater from a bowl held out to the sky, painting a smooth mask of stillness on the cat’s deadened face.
The earliest hours of the morning, just before the boys began to stir, she made notes in the margins of her book, dog-eared pages and crossed out lines, made brackets around pictures, drew arrows, wrote brief descriptions. She studied and noted and detailed everything, then she wrapped the whole of it—four limbs, chest, and muddied cat head—into a shroud of eggshell fabric, double and tripled over then buried like a treasure in the far reaches of the fern-floored forest, barely aware of the rain soaking into her skin.
In the end, the only remaining items were those jars, which she kept to observe, to compare with book’s images, to see which materials rotted and which methods truly preserved.
The stunning moment of Our Mother’s first attempted mummification.
We only thought we heard the quiet sounds of a cat like a child pleading in the rain, beneath cloud-covered stars.
The Goonies (1985). Directed by Richard Donner. Screenplay by Chris Columbus. Story by Steven Spielberg.