I first learned sweetness from the tip of my mother’s finger, the pink glazed round grazed over my tongue, again and again, until all there was left was the salt of her skin.
I found the deep dwelling of minerals in the crush of her ochre shadows, blush, talc—swept in an umlaut over the ridge of cheekbones.
Yes, and the pull of my hair, the hanks drawn up in golden skeins, rolled over foam and clipped. A head full of ornaments; she assures—don’t move in the night. Revealing me inside of pleasure, being preened, yanked open and then closed.
I learned her in the yearning. The way her absence traced the world around it. The only world was the one with her bodily.
I wondered where she was when she wasn’t.
She once drew an ear. Cochlea. Vestibule. Anvil.
Language rose from the matte white in primary blocks, black lines directing me into the canal—the places where sound finds weight.
How easily one sees snails, the shell spiraling into the unseen place, bookending the brain. This is what school looks like, she said. This is for a presentation about the body.
We met a man at the university. He had six roller skates and we put them on. Mom, the man and I, rolled through the concrete halls, the gardens, the bell tower beside us, behind us. Bell ringing the hours. There was no one but us. This must have been a dream.
Tap, tappptaptapp, tap, tap, taptap. At night the deep hum of electricity and letters being punched onto paper, waking me, lulling me. I turn into the sound, the current of language displacing the air with alphabet.
Show me the snail, I beg. It exists in the world without me; that place we skated easily over the earth, our wheels making one smooth, continuous sound—a shushing.
Montgomery Wards. The name on our lawn mower connected by a thread to the nametag shining on her breast. Glass sheen walkway and a country of beds, shoe on shoe on shoe, and the box full of gold. Mom stands behind it. I see her skirt through the glass she tells me not to touch. Lets me hold the red ruby ring.
I wanted the Hush Puppies. Tassels. Little moustaches shimmying over the puckered toes.
Homeward, we slide over the truck bench, DadMeMom. The scent of sunrust, the sweat and perfume soaking through blouse tied at the throat. How she would pull the sash loose, exposing her moles—constellation over the rise of breast flesh.
There was the moment of crossing the green bridge before the rise of land and road. The truck spasmed—halted—at the base of the ascent. What did I know about distance until we opened the doors into darkness, held hand into hand and began stepping?
I was too big, but she held me. Held my body in long stretches. Arrived to the pay phone fused like an animal with two heads, a bouquet of sweating limbs. Where did Dad go? He came for us, I know. He went the other way in the dark.
Bessy, he named her. The truck that never carried us again.
My teeth wake them in the night. The hard stones of the mouth, pressing together, across one another and into their ears. There were the years I stayed awake, seeing the shadows crawl the hallway between our two rooms. There were times I could sink below calling out.
I did my best, lying still until I levitated with fear. Stillness is a story I’ve told. Also, the fires that would eat us in one gasp. The axe-wielding ones who would leave me to live.
Shout to her in the darkness. Shout to her until the sheets announced a waking. Shout to her as the steps closed in on the marauders.
Listen for the, Here, I’m here.
Her body squeezed mine blissfully between the wall of her and the wall. Then she dragged her hands over my spine, shoulders, hair. Trails of warmth permit the breath to return.
My mouth quiets. We lay—little knots bound.
I cannot run after her from here. I feel the air stir from the backdoor opening and closing, clicking into the frame. How do we know one day from another? The words we hear before we know words. The perfume scattering. The purpose of colors pulled from temple to temple.
She holds her finger out to me, frosting the same shell pink as her lipstick. It’s a birthday. I am folded into a chair and snapped into place.
She is leaving, but she is sitting beside me, purse posed nearby and her cheeks lit up with color. The rainbow across her face means she is leaving. The perfect pipe curls resting in a pile around her head means she is leaving.
It is my birthday and they sing, Dad and Mom, a small cake in her hands with flame. We blow together.
This is the photograph: our lips kissing nothing, pushing the fire from the air.
Sarah Pape lives and writes in Chico, California. She teaches English and works as the Managing Editor ofWatershed Review at Chico State. Her poetry and prose has recently been published in Pilgrimage, Prick of the Spindle, The Superstition Review, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She curates community literary programming through the 1078 Gallery and is a member of the Quion Collective, a local letterpress group.