by Sara Dobbie
My mother descended into madness, or so I thought, in the summer of 1993. It was a good year for the clematis, the pretty magenta blooms cascaded over the trellis that leaned against the back shed. Our property was large enough that one could wander beyond the shed into an untended forest, and that’s where I found her. She sat cross-legged in the middle of the beaten dirt path, her lap filled with the soft, bright petals. I watched in confusion from behind a tree as she picked up a bloom and put it in her mouth. One by one she ate the flowers, until they were all gone.
Her lips stained a deep purple, she laid down on the forest floor and stared at the branches winding and twisting through the sky over her head. I left her there and returned to the house, seeking the solace of my tiny bedroom under the eaves. I sat on the same twin bed I’d slept in during my entire childhood and wondered if there was any harm in what my mother was doing. I decided to keep an eye on her.
I had been away from home for five years, during which time I got married, moved to the city, worked in an office, and then got a divorce. Here in my childhood bed, I existed in a strange time warp, drifting between innocence and maturity, between comfort and a driving need to escape. Escape from what exactly, I wasn’t sure, but every day when I woke, I felt uneasy, like there was something else I should be doing.
Our home is an old farmhouse that sits on a country highway. My father left us alone there for good when I was fifteen years old, after the incident with the dog. We were driving into town on a hot afternoon to get ice cream. My mother sang along to the radio, she always loved to sing. I tapped my hand against my knee to the beat until I saw a little white dog run onto the road, directly into the path of the pickup truck in front of us. I craned forward between my parents’ heads in the front seat and watched as the poor thing rolled underneath the truck’s rear tire, and then remained still on the pavement, lifeless.
The truck kept driving and my father slowed our car down to swerve around the dead dog, and I turned back and saw a tearful woman hurry to kneel beside her beloved pet through the back windshield. ‘We should stop,’ my mother said.
‘It’s not our concern,’ my father answered.
‘Stop the car,’ she insisted. He didn’t touch the brakes, just continued at a normal, safe pace and signaled to turn left at the intersection that led to our destination. ‘You make me sick,’ my mother said. ‘This is just like the time with Robin. You have no compassion, no shred of a heart.’
Robin lived next door to us, and her boyfriend used to beat her up when he came home from the bar. My mother wanted to do something, to call the cops. My father implored her to mind her own business. I remember coming home one night from a friend’s house to find Robin sitting in our kitchen holding a bag of frozen peas on her eye while my mother made tea. I remember my father ranting at her for days about staying out of other people’s lives, about how we have enough trouble of our own without getting involved in other people’s.
The woman and her broken dog faded into the distance and my father pulled into the ice cream place. ‘You can’t save everybody all the time,’ he said firmly, ‘you just can’t.’
‘Well you could help some people some of the time, if you weren’t such a goddamn coward.’
The next morning Dad was gone, and we didn’t hear from him until a year later, when a postcard arrived from the Cayman Islands addressed to me only. Hope you’re well, it read, I’ll see you again someday. Until then, take care.
The day after the clematis eating, I follow my mother. She steps out onto the big front porch, shades her eyes, one hand on her hip. She walks down the steps and heads to the road. Carefully waits until a transport truck passes, and then crosses to the field on the other side. She never turns back to notice me behind her, and the noise of vehicles covers my footsteps crushing the dry grasses. I know where she’s going, she’s going to our secret place. It isn’t really a secret, it’s just a small area of beach at the edge of the lake on the other side of the field, but that’s what we called it when I was little. She used to take me there for picnics when Dad was at work. We would stay there all afternoon, swimming and collecting bits of glass or twigs or interesting-colored pebbles.
My mother takes off her sandals and pushes her feet into the sand. She stretches her arms to the sky and then dives forward slowly, and I think for a moment she’s doing yoga, a sun salutation of some kind. This idea quickly disintegrates when she sits down and starts moving her legs back and forth, digging her heels deeper and deeper. She creates a small mound to rest her head on. Then she starts scooping great piles of sand and pouring them on her stomach. I watch in fascination as my mother proceeds to bury herself in the sand. Like a lone child on summer vacation, she meticulously covers her entire body up to her armpits, until she can’t quite move her arms anymore. She folds her hands together and rests them on top of her sand covered torso and closes her eyes as the sun shines down on her face.
I walk slowly back towards the house, and when I see it there, all faded wooden siding and swinging screen doors, I decide things have gone on for too long. I have to call my father.
I know she has his current phone number hiding in a drawer because I found it accidentally while looking for a phone book. It was written inside a blank note card, with a message about using it in case of emergency. I pick up the rotary phone on the kitchen wall and dial. After several rings I almost give up, but he answers, his voice deep and slow, just as I remember it. ‘Mom’s been acting strange,’ I say, after explaining to him that I’m home because I have nowhere else to go after the divorce.
‘Strange, you say? That’s no surprise,’ he tells me. ‘Why did you get a divorce?’
‘He was too selfish,’ I say, not mentioning the affair he had or the way he always picked what restaurant we ate at whether I liked it or not. My father laughs.
‘You sound like your mother.’
I think about her down at the beach buried in sand, I picture her chewing the pink flower petals.I think about how she sat up late with me, held my hair back while I threw up, head spinning the first time I came home drunk from a party. The way she cheered and clapped as I posed beside the principal with my diploma. The way she stayed, and he left. The way we end up feeling crazy when we expect people to be better, or at least to try.
‘You know, Dad, maybe I am like her. And now that I think of it, she’s probably okay. I was worried about nothing.’
I hang up the phone and run back to the beach. I sit down beside her in the sand and start burrowing in. ‘Oh hello, dear,’ she says, and shifts her head slightly so she can see me. ‘I know this is weird, but they say it’s the best way to exfoliate.’
‘Is that right?’ I ask, covering my legs the same way she did.
‘Yes, I’ve been trying a few natural techniques lately, for self-esteem and relaxation. I even ate some flower petals; I read in a magazine it’s supposed to be good for the soul.’
I nestle into the heap of sand I’ve created and think about souls. Good ones, bad ones, my own that seems to hover somewhere in the middle. It was wrong of me to make assumptions about my mother, but at least I’m trying. And I’m glad I left my husband. I’m glad to be here on the beach. I look over at her and she starts singing, and I swear I see clematis petals flow out of her mouth, tiny fuchsia bits swirling up in great circles, a chain of flowers wafting away on the breeze over the lake.
Sara Dobbie is a Canadian writer from Southern Ontario. Her stories have appeared in New World Writing, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, Ruminate Online, Trampset, Ellipsis Zine, and elsewhere. Her chapbook “Static Disruption” is available from Alien Buddha Press. Her story collection “Flight Instinct” is forthcoming from ELJ Editions (2022). Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie, and on Instagram at @sbdobwrites.