Orphaned Near the Cave
By Kelli Allen
If the egg splits, its sides falling open just enough for the fuzz-capped head of the child to emerge, then the story might be allowed to end. When the egg is found crushed, wet pieces tucked quickly into the open mouth of the tree, then we have little choice but to begin again. Often, after peeking through loose fingers held as wings over our eyes, we look for fragments, hoping they remain piled, split and sharded, not growing, as magnets, back together.
According to the old masters, there are seven primary sources of shame: Intentional shaming, shame through silent response, inherited shame, shaming through events, shame of the body, maintained shame, and shame of our false self. We learn early that the gift of our screeching, immeasurably exuberant, terrifying, ugly, perfect selves to our parents, through the dark ride down and out into our mother’s strangle-tight embrace, is not wanted. Not really. It is merely the idea of us, new and yet only the replication of everyone before our arrival, which sustains the fragile joy of our births. The moment our eyes focus long and willingly on theirs, our parents retreat into the familiar saving measures of supplying a lifetime of shame for our greedy hearts, our open mouths.
Holding her head in my lap, letting the freshly opened vein (shrinking into itself across her thinning arm) puddle wet flowers of varying sizes into this, the bottom of my simple blue jacket, I wonder how long minutes can pace back and forth when counted in sharp twunk twunks from a mounted brass wall clock to my newly pierced ears. I consider the speed of sound and how the tiny silver and jade bells barely dangling from my lobes would infuriate my mother were she awake, were she listening, as I am, to both bell and measured seconds. I cannot be certain which would anger her more, the color of my earrings or the subtle, distant chime they echo when I turn my head. She has always despised both anything green and adornments on her daughter. My plainness was one of her only obvious wishes for me.
I think again of the fairy story about the egg forced into the changeling’s tree where it breaks, and wind blows its pieces, in sharp threes, into the open knot—the one my grandfather told me during every visit my mother and I made to my grandparents’ home. It never mattered how many times I listened, as I refused to accept his ending and expected events to somehow change with each subtly different version. He reminded me with every telling that the story’s conclusion depended upon my belief in Ivan, and whether I agreed he would find the shell fragments in time to feed Baba Yaga’s hunger, or if the Firebird would come too soon and lift Ivan so far and high that the whole journey must resume from the beginning. I grew up understanding the viciousness of the ouroboric. Here, with my mother’s face turned just far enough away against my thigh, I remember my grandfather’s warning that where we choose to let a story end is dependent entirely on faith and, sometimes, intention.
Looking around the room, I recognize that it was easy enough to not quite understand that she must have held the bent needle between her thumb and two fingers moments before I came into the room. There was brief confusion as I watched the long syringe begin its decent onto the bed sheets. While not having quite fallen from the tripod of her grasp, it was already distorted from the pressure of being dragged through skin into tighter, less willing tissues, and then out again into artificially cold air. Now, watching it drift heavily onto the cotton beside her as her limbs mimic pulse, I consider all five inches of its machine pulled metal, flattish on the bed where the syringe casing lay used, sleeping its glass and steel sleep. The molded base of pink plastic no longer fits, diaphragm-round, to connect point to valve. I almost feel sadness for the abuse of an object skillfully made, trusted to deliver a different answer than this one. There must be close to four minutes before I am not ashamed to stare past all of it, through to the locked window across from her dusty walnut dresser. Less, and the shame is thick and I am all memory of inattention and looping daydreams.
The mirror my father hung across from this bed years before, when he pretended to sleep in her room, now shows the three of us in reverse: My mother an aging princess caught in another, less European story. The weapon, often caressed, discarded, so gently, so lovingly, mute against pale mocha sheets. Me, unchanged, diaphanous in reflected late afternoon shadows. I have done nothing to stop the steady stickiness leaving her arm and snaking in wider and wider arcs onto me, onto my clothing, onto the bed. There is little room in my narrow lap for both her head and slick arm, but I cradle them both as I would an asymmetrical nest of bent feathers and moss. I cannot feel her breathe and I do nothing but wonder if she remembers me as her child deliberately blinking, too slowly, eyelashes alive in their separate prettiness, caring less and less about the spreading blooms of red-purple on my own arm as she wrapped it absently after my first real summer wounds.
She was so exquisitely angry with me the July morning nineteen years ago, when I cut completely through my shell-pink silk blouse while climbing the new retaining wall my grandfather built after years of planning and purchasing stones from both coasts. He explained his intentions for the building, even to me, my comprehension rooted in castle walls and dragons known to seduce the cleverest of golden-haired maidens. I was relentless in my search for the treasure I knew my grandfather had seen, but would stubbornly not share. So when he told me, in details laden with mythic import, why each layer of the wall meant months of planning, stones carrying an implied heritage, heavy with their rockish histories, into his yard, I listened as a heroine hoping to record the hidden messages, my own verbal map to finery and romance. He gathered the squarish stones, he explained, from opposite sides of the country to remind him, once built, that his wall meant retention of unity, of ideals lost in this, the middle of a flat green, barely Union state. He said the stones were magic because they once touched both seas and now nestled together to whisper their own stories, for each other and for me, if I could be brave and still just long enough.
Putting the thin silk blouse under my beloved cream and lavender jumper seemed the perfect announcement of seriousness, my intention to learn from my grandfather’s new wall just where and how I was meant to complete my own journey to first one sea, then the other. I had carefully arranged cranberries into the loose braids of my fine hair to further the sensation of danger and mystery set for the afternoon. My mother had cranberries with her in every season—carrying them in a squat sequined bag. She would unpack this sack whenever she felt an urge to have something solid and sweet on her tongue. I spent many years offering chocolates, mints, licorice chews and once, golden raisins to replace the strange waxy berries that embarrassed me and provoked my jealousy.
Knowing my mother would fit her eyes into even slits of grey if she saw my silken arms and my quick movements in the direction of the bottle-glass patio doors, I waited until she was settled, counting the lovely gems of pills waiting in rows across my grandparents’ kitchen counter. She would do this every morning whether in our home three hours north, or here, in my grandfather’s moderately new house. Hers was a ritual complete with reverence, marked by anxious disapproval for any audience her actions may acquire. Each capsule meant a different moment of quiet, awareness, or ability to maintain a pose on the bar still hung perfectly in my grandmother’s dance room in the rounded angle of the east L that marked the long house’s shape. Her dancer’s legs coiling and twining into and around the iron pedestal of the bar stools looping a U around the granite counter gave me momentary pause as I kitten-stepped beyond her and out the door to reach the waiting wall. She was, despite her name, distinctly beautiful.
I had not climbed much of the mica speckled shale of the wall’s first few feet before I felt a quick tug and soft rip—first revealing my thin arm, then the blood beading up to fill tiny estuaries marking my skin. The silk was ruined instantly, of course, but the blossoming of wounds would assist in a different kind of ruin, the kind kept in wax sealed jars of forgetfulness, opening only when forced, spilling only when exposed to bright lights. Having reached only one narrow crevice to place my small hand, I lowered myself down and gathered whatever passable resolve I could sustain, and walked in tight, tiny steps back to the kitchen, to my mother counting and fondling her army of cobalt, lily-green, robin blue, and chalk-white pills.
She did little more than look over her shoulder, bent forward as though she were cutting into a tough vegetable rather than delicately maneuvering the stale orange juice colored bottles, each open, ready to re-receive their contents. Her glance, though quick, was enough to steal the bravery I had armored my lips and eyes with—a screwing-up of the face’s muscles to appear nonchalant, commanding, secure. We had rarely discussed injury, my mother and I, and when I occasionally found myself cut or bruised, it was with lazy under-indulgence that she would attend to my needs. Should I break a drinking glass, or tear a corner in one of her massive collections of famous quotes while turning the page too fast, her anger was immediate and her attention acute. I knew instantly, the wishes for adventure gone, that the state of my silk blouse would add heavier pebbles to my already bulging jar of embarrassments and failures.
The final visit I made to my grandfather’s wall came six weeks before I left for college and three years before my mother’s last rehearsal for ending her life. He had been dead for a year, and the house had been sold to a massive Presbyterian organization to be used as a meeting center for monthly retreats. I assumed my grandfather, a man who chose to name his only daughter Gwenivere, intended to leave his home and its long smudge of stone wall to a young mother he knew through his pediatric practice. Her two small girls needed space away from the city and their estranged and angry father. He used to tell me during long phone conversations that this mother and her children deserved a haven, and why not his, its grounds meant more for women than any sloppy male presence?
The extended illness before his death only made his storytelling more immediate, his tales and assertions as serious as going into the market to purchase a Dark One like in old poems by Mirabai, which he used to read to me when my mother refused to leave her positions in front of the dance studio mirror long enough to see me safely and warmly to bed. Though he could not capture the rhythm in the poems with his voice alone, he would tap his fingers across my back while he read, letting touch mimic movement in Mirabai’s verses or sometimes in the more exotic of Ghalib’s ghazals:
He gave me heaven and earth, and assumed I’d be satisfied;
Actually I was too embarrassed to argue.
The spiritual seekers are tired, two or three at each stage of the path.
The rest who have given up never knew your address at all.
There are so many in this gathering who wish the candle well.
But if the being of the candle is melting, what can the sorrow-sharers do?
And like the Russian prince Ivan, my grandfather wanted to leave a nest within a nest so as to begin a new fairy story constructed from the moments of real security his home could provide for a tiny female family, a village of soft miniature elephants in human form. My grandfather often saw women as sleek minks whose praise should be sung from the rim of a pond filled with crocodiles. Such music, he would remind me, is more significant when heard beyond the presence of reptilian coldness. What the water in its neat concentric rings could promise, the ugly reeds lining its mouth always served to remind us that beauty is vertical, shaded, wet.
During this last visit, I only stayed near the wall for a few moments, the time marked more by the arrival of a swarm of metallic dragonflies than by the weight of my reflections or intentions. I had come to pry a piece of rock away and take it with me as a memento, but once staring at the calloused stones, I could remove nothing. I cannot remember what I said, which likely phrases I muttered as a sort of goodbye, or thank you, or apology. I did not for one moment think of my mother, and remain grateful for that singular absence. There were weird bits of wing catching light and amplified dust motes from violent mating as the dragonflies lit on the wall. I leaned very close to one pair and blew out as hard as I could to push their unified bodies down, all swirling rotation of color, until they landed silently on the grass buffeting the soil against rock.
The last time I sat as I do now, waiting for my mother’s breathing to normalize or to simply stop, for the paramedics to lift and take her away again, was exactly two years ago, upon my graduation from college, upon my arrival back in her home, for a brief necessary visit. I was there to collect the remains of my adolescence, boxed and labeled in loose curved letters spelling Celia age eleven and Celia age fourteen, all bleeding blue ink and taped poorly across top and bottom seams.
My new husband had driven me to my parent’s house promising to be back within an hour after stopping by my father’s office to say hello and apologize for us both for not being able to stay for dinner after all. I remember that I was wearing an extremely delicate watch that afternoon—a gift from my grandmother, given for the wedding day she knew she would be unable to witness. They died as swans, my grandparents. The male lover leaving for his woman in the way Orpheus must have padded on bare feet quickly through cold flames and gnarled woods after Eurydice. The watch, crocheted silver, was ridiculous in its loud ticktickticktick through such thin opal-studded glass. I adored it for its lovely silliness, its loud fragility.
She recovered from the attempt as she had all the ones before, and I left a little later that day than intended, my husband and father both meeting me at the hospital for muted greetings and then goodbyes. I only took three boxes from my childhood home, and only because I needed some weight in my arms when I was allowed to ride in the ambulance with my mother. My things, my crowns and pieces of lace, which I never learned to sew into anything other than wisps of scarves, my gaudy crystal fairies and journals, all sat in their cardboard caves, sealed, against the vehicle’s inner walls as we rode, my mother and the paramedics, to whatever saving measures might be administered somewhere in the huge hospital.
When I arrived back at my own home, with my husband examining each item from the boxes he carried from the hospital to his car and then up to our second floor apartment, I noticed my watch was no longer pinching the peach of my wrist. It had fallen, snapped and dropped, and I had no idea when, and only loosely where, and I had missed the moment entirely.
I can see the tops of a few of the photos I brought to show my mother today. They are poking only slightly from the leather lip of my shoulder bag, which has fallen onto the bed with us. My mother’s arm is now completely lost in dark plumy red and her head, still relaxed and heavy in my lap, feels cooler, her hair fanning in weird clumps close to my navel, my jacket ruined by wet and weight. I came to give the prints to her, to tell her that my first fishing trip was as strange and ugly as I expected it to be.
My father had arranged for the trip, his brother and my husband amused that I would finally come along, participate in the annual adventure to capture and consume. On the trip, there was a child who belonged to one of the river guides who accompanied us on our five-mile journey down the Missouri. When we finally came ashore and began to take stock and prepare the fish, this child, a tanned boy maybe ten, maybe younger, sat in the low branch of a thin tree and waited until all of the fish were lined-up for gutting. Then he would jump down and snatch the bucket the men kept near the cleaning table to catch the fish lungs and other shiny organs. This boy, an urchin operating purely from his own conception of joy, would grab the grey bucket, take a fish lung, place it on the ground, and leap onto it quickly, a stomp creating a loud pop which I could feel in my throat as I watched from a table near the shore, using the camera to see closer, to still and finalize each moment.
The photos showed primarily the men holding their whiskered prizes, won after struggle through mud and brown water. There are none of me, but I brought the photos to my mother today as proof that I was making physical efforts in the world of men—to show my prissiness and silks could be willingly and momentarily faded. The images are unremarkable in almost every way—the colors are neither bright nor dull, and the shaded faces of the men show ordinary smiles and arms extended out to display the long prehistoric shape of one catfish after another. In the background of several of the photos, a small cave can be seen pushed grey and secure into a bluff-face near the river. One photo shows the boy climbing back into the tree; his smile caught in profile, remarkably feminine, his blond hair seeming white like a winter fox.
I know now where the cave’s mouth gapes, and how the secret dens tucked high and black against rock must invent their stories. The herds of complicated phrases and sounds, which form, against all sense, the thistle-pricked sheets of my memory, pass slowly, again and again, in front of the cave’s entrance. Understanding this as I recognize what I mistake for dreams upon waking, and then return to sleep, I look for shore instead. Pimpled sacks filled with shades of what we try to remember find their way to the old mica-riddled shelves without our help. Turning away, facing the thin carpet of waves wetting the sand is the one understatement we are allowed. We all know water promises weight to carry our grief, pulsing, further and still further away. The cave is something else entirely. Its promises are the sharp moments of sex we insist frighten us when anyone asks us about love, but which we secretly desire above all faint and feathered touch. The prince always knows this and turns again and again away from his beloved when she becomes too tender. He is looking for the opening where the egg rests unharmed. Yes, memory is velocity solidified and molded into something with hooves and breath. We must be careful where we let these creatures run—to granite or sea.
I have learned little from my mother. If there is no test for truth, what else can we do but walk, our shoulders rolled down, chins cupping an invisible smooth stone against our chests, and wait to feed whatever wild animals wait for us near the woods’ edge?
Kelli Allen’s latest book is Imagine Not Drowning (C&R Press, 2017). Allen’s work has appeared in numerous journals in the US and internationally. She served as Managing Editor of Natural Bridge, is the Poetry Editor forThe Lindenwood Review, and directs River Styx’s Hungry Young Poets Series. She is a Professor of Humanities/Creative Writing at Lindenwood University. Her chapbook, Some Animals, won the 2016 Etchings Press Prize. Her chapbook, How We Disappear, won the 2016 Damfino Press chapbook award. Her poetry collection, Otherwise, Soft White Ash, arrived from John Gosslee Books in 2012 and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. http://www.crpress.org/shop/imagine-not-drowning/
“Orphaned Near the Cave” was originally published by Echo Ink Review in 2011.
*Poem by Mirza Ghalib.