When Josh knelt and presented the ring, the first question Hélène considered – other than the obvious – was, “am I going to have to kill his mother?”
So far she’d mastered her rage. Three years of the relationship, two and a half trying to extricate him from the strange, devious little woman who bore him.
There was sympathy in the beginning. A widow, for god’s sake. Alone – naturally – in a rickety house in the country. Far deeper into old age than her own parents (robustly expatting in the Geneva apartment), Josh being a sole ‘late blessing’. She was physically fragile too. Twittering and jumpy in her petite bones, as if ever avoiding life’s snap.
From the start, Hélène – all five ten of confidence and rower’s shoulders – took care to lean down, to strain her ears, to diminish herself in polite compromise.
But the woman was a sneaky little thief.
It started with the hair.
Every holiday, that bony hug of welcome: the one the mother insisted on maintaining through the first two minutes of disbelief that they’d survived the roads, the weather, the traffic, the Times, the Times. And Hélène would feel those little claw hands stroking her back, her long brown hair, and the twang at just the point of greatest exclamation at their presence at her poor little home, and oh Ellen call me Mom dear, and eventually, a few months in, she was sure: the woman was stealing her hair. Pulling it out right there, smothered away back inside the large pockets flowing over her droopy old-lady parts.
Emptying the car of groceries, presents and suitcases that first Thanksgiving, Josh met her whispered fury with laughter.
“So your hair gets caught on her rings”. He grinned. “I didn’t think you were so precious!”
But then there was the sweater that vanished right from the seat next to her. Mohair, new, ready for the holidays, and maybe Mom accidentally picked up it for the laundry? Oh no, she hadn’t seen it but then, her eyes, you know, not what they were anyway. Josh had simpered, asked if Mom wanted taking into town for a check-up, and it had all got blown over, muted – as everything was in that house of peeling pastels – with sherbet crumbs of concern.
That night the floss went from her washbag in the shared bathroom. Her not-quite-ironic new-agey necklace (fraying but loyally present since grad school): vanished. Wrappers from half-eaten health bars, oats left gritty in her bag. Her lipstick. Socks. Even the underwire from a bra. All ‘lost’ during visits to Mom’s.
Josh treated it like a running joke.
“Hey hey!” He’d warn as they readied for Christmas, “don’t pack those earrings, or Mom’ll get ’em!”
Later, he made Hélène the punchline. Comments at dinner parties – how hosts better return her coat at the end of the night, or else! Everyone would laugh, while he refused to meet her eye. She knew this for what it was. An early warning, a shot off the bow: this can be fun, or it can not be fun.
She yielded. Temporarily. When all was said and done, investments had been made. To the relationship, to them, to herself: her own trajectory set with triumph. And frankly, the woman was old. She wasn’t going to be around for the main act that would be their lives. So Hélène stopped speaking of the thefts. She never confronted Mom; maintained a neutral gaze at the balding crown of her little head. When the jokes at the dinners were made, she topped up her glass a little higher, hunched a little smaller. A fixed smile of self-deprecation: what am I like, huh?
The proposal came in all good time for Hélène’s plans. Though admittedly, just after the confirmation of the pregnancy, which painted the whole thing in a slightly more chaotic fashion than she would have liked. They made the five-hour round trip especially to break the news: all of it, rings and stomachs, and the pruned family tree lunging out with an unexpected stab.
Even Josh was thrown by Mom’s reaction: so pale he had to ask her to sit down, sharply. Her hand to her mouth in a wide oh of horror, and that gasped but I’m not ready! before scurrying up to her bedroom, locking the door with the stuttering turn of a toothed key.
For once, Hélène forgot to be silent.
“Not everything’s yours to take!” she roared through the walls. The flash in Josh’s eyes made her lean back, just a little.
In the end Mom waved it all off as low blood sugar, a shock, overwhelming emotion. She and Josh sat in Mom’s room for a while. His head in her lap. Snot-filled murmurings.
“It’s the new life,” he explained to Hélène later, with blanching reverence. “It brought everything back. Y’know, Pop and all.”
She watched his careful frown, the eye-rolling depths of sincerity.
“I think maybe we should spend some more time with her? Get out of the city more?”
She only made a murmur of nothingness, crossing her fingers to ward off the hex of his red-eyed cowardice.
The next day Mom was back to her usual self, flitting about, full of fuss and favour, wanting to talk that inane talk which stripped Hélène down to dates and body parts. The urgency seemed to have passed. On the ledger of sacrifice: her silver earrings; a single lambskin glove.
They returned home to the apartment. But the calls and the check-ins increased. Overheard mutterings on the kitchen extension, she just had a very different childhood over there mom, and I just worry she won’t -.
Long weekends leapt into the calendar while her back was turned. A quiet battle in blue marker. They returned again and again to the scene of the crimes.
Later in the pregnancy, the cloying sweetness of Mom’s attention – her flapping, sugar sprinkling, cake-baking timidity – needed a salting. Hélène would bring her own pot of olives to the table, popping them into her mouth between bites of whatever wholesome proteins steamed from the casserole. She relished the worried frown on the old woman’s face as she ignored the fluffy pancakes, instead tarring thin dry toast in yeast extract. Whole salads drowned mercilessly in vinegar and soy sauce. Josh would shake his head, mock whispering, cravings! to his mother, who faced his fiancé’s oiled smacking lips with horror; the napkin on which she wiped them, soon only an empty square on the table-cloth.
As their stays expanded, so did Hélène, and her doubt. Slow and mighty, she seemed to exist in a steady state of accumulation: her body and belongings increasing so rapidly that it was hard to know what things had been shed – hair, skin, privacy, gloop in bottles – let alone if little Mom was still scavenging in her shadow, creeping things away.
Until she caught her.
Josh was out, sent to pick up an array of lightbulbs. Mom insisted she needed some, whilst being vague about the type or the where or the why. In a way, the timing was helpful. The tension from yesterday’s long drive – it’s not a weakness to let a man just provide sometimes, why do you always – still ill-fitting the space between them.
Yet Hélène was wary of the resulting ‘girl-time’. She retreated to a carefully crafted cushioned structure in the front room, flipping through wedding magazines with a confused contempt. Her bladder finally overrode her self-preservation, and she stirred, crabby. The rock of an engagement ring bit into her swollen fingers as she pushed her weight down on the armrests, leveraging herself up to take her place in the world.
She cursed, as always, that the only bathroom was upstairs. Her lumbering of each step should have been warning enough, but maybe the old woman’s hearing was going. For there was Mom, standing in the bathroom, pulling old Kleenex from the pockets of Hélène’s hanging robe. Perhaps an innocent tidying, but for the sniffing, and the tasting, and shoving them in her own greying cardigan.
“What the actual fuck, Mom?”
The eyes didn’t flash up, but lowered. An instinctive beta response.
Hélène walked steadily, stood as close to the little witch as her own mighty belly allowed, her heft stretched to her full height.
She whispered down without bowing her neck.
“I said. What. The actual. Fuck”
A whimper, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m not ready”
“Ready for what? Consequences? A bit of truth? Huh?”
A whisper, too low.
“What? Speak up.”
It came. Fear and pride.
“I’ve been making something for you, honey. It’s not ready yet. I’m so sorry. It won’t be ready”
Her little claw hands pecked at Hélène’s sleeves, beckoning her to follow, down the hall, along its bends and half-steps. At the end, Mom gave an odd little jump to grab the attic door-pull, eased down the ladder with a well-practiced glide.
“Here, it’s up here, please come, I’m so sorry.”
Mom started climbing, quick little hands and feet, until her head disappeared into the dark square of the hatch.
Hélène pinched the top of her nose. Counted to five. Always so proud of her mastery of self, yet here she was. In the sticks. Alone. Following the mad woman into her attic.
She opened her eyes, took in the hallway of family photographs, beige and bland, their contents shrinking, like trees shedding rings. Briefly, she wondered if young Mom had ever stood here, at the bottom of a staircase of frustrated curiosity, dust-fall and creaks.
“Please, please come up,” came the voice, away in the dark. “Mind your head though, oh mind your head in the dark, the light’s gone, just gone.”
The thin high steps – almost a ladder – strained at her thighs, and warmed her shoulders. Hélène was heavy, but she was strong. Getting through the hatch took concentration and lacked grace, but eventually she stood, holding one hand up to a beam for support, and with the other straightening her clothes.
When her eyes adjusted, she took in Mom’s silhouette in the gloom, uncomfortably closer than she thought.
She seemed to be flapping her little arms.
But then, no, she was gesturing. To turn around.
At first Hélène only saw mess. Mass. Her nose wrinkled as the smell began to envelop her. Warm and floral, then musky, then overtones of cold wet wool.
A glint. There. The light coming up through the hatch was reflecting off her sunglasses, ‘lost’ last summer, now here, watching her.
She took in the snaking fibers of scarves, a belt, the handle of a tote bag. Pages of her books, slathered in her sun lotion. In oils, in padded fibers, in lace, in her.
Hair. Everywhere. Balled and braided and slick and slimed, anchored to rafters, stretched to floorboards.
In the center of it all, the soft indentation. Big enough for a curled up woman, five ten and full. A cocoon for one.
She turned to Mom. The woman’s hands were at her mouth, delighted and shamed, and eager and frightened. The uplighting from the hallway made her all lines and thin dustings of shadow.
And so, so close, to the open yawning hatch beneath a sooty broken bulb.
Hélène took a breath. Placed her heavy hands on Mom’s burdened little shoulders.
“Thank you,” she said. “It’s perfect.”
Jess Moody is a Wulfrunian in London, UK. She likes her worlds and words a little weird. New to fiction in 2019, her work has appeared in online literary magazines (Lunate, Ellipsis, Reflex, Storgy, Retreat West, and Cabinet of Heed) and forthcoming in the Storgy Annihilation Radiation anthology. She has received nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and snuck onto shortlists for Lunate500 and Retreat West. Jess also reviews new fiction releases for Lunate.
Details of previous publications & links (as of Aug 2020):
* ‘Space Raiders’ in Retreat West : First Runner Up in Quarterly Flash Competition, and Nominated for Sundress Press’ ‘Best of the Net’ https://www.retreatwest.co.uk/space-raiders-by-jess-moody
* ‘Elan’ Shortlisted for the Lunate500 https://lunate.co.uk/lunate-500-the-wrong-way-results/lunate-500-shortlist-elan-by-jess-moody
* ‘First of the Mad Notions’ – Shortlisted for the Lunate500 https://lunate.co.uk/lunate-500-the-wrong-way-results/lunate-500-shortlist-first-of-the-mad-notions-by-jess-moody
* ‘Legacy’ – Cabinet of Heed, Issue 35 https://cabinetofheed.com/2020/06/25/legacy-jess-moody/
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