Godmother says I’m not allowed to leave the house, especially when she works late. I obey, even though I want to feel the soft desert sand between my toes, the night-breeze slip itchy between the spaces of my fingers. My want for something bigger than this house scares Godmother and I don’t like her when she’s hurting, all soft and wet like a new animal, a baby lizard slick from its egg. So I stay away from the large glass doors and I try not to get too close to the windows that frame the living room like mirrors. At night, in the firefly glow of the lamps, I watch a translucent and hunted face in the glass, a white and uncertain moon. If I stare too long, I can’t tell if it’s my face or the shadow of someone looking in, either way it looks scared and desperate. I wonder if that’s what Godmother fears about the outside—that once you’re out, it’s not easy to get back in.
Godmother works at a plastic recycling plant from the early morning late into the evening, at least that’s what she says. When Godmother leaves in the predawn chill, she kisses my slick forehead, strokes back my hair, her rough fingernails catching in the tiny, tangled knots. I lie still, tense my red and braided muscles to resist the urge to jump, the pain like little sparklers popping in my scalp. I don’t want her to know I’m awake, I don’t want to wish her good morning, to kiss the plush expanse of her cheek. I don’t want to promise that I love her only, that I never think of going anywhere else.
She whispers, the smell of coffee and goat-cream on her breath, don’t leave don’t leave remember it’s not safe. You’re still not safe. And I shiver all the way from my neck to my toes.
By the time I fully wake its half-nine and only the spill of her laundry over the banister reminds me she was here. I won’t see her again until the next morning and the day stretches before me, infinite and untouchable like a mirage on hot pavement. What to eat, what to look at, what to think: how to fill the pool of daytime, bottomless, timeless, vast. There are no books in this house, no electronics, or games or music—Godmother says entertainment is a temptation. Instead, I drift to the furthest edges of the house and pretend I’m the one who’s dead and not her.
Godmother lives in the desert so I live here too, in a quiet dusty place somewhere nobody knows and it never rains, not for real. Not like it used to in the city, where the raindrops hit so hard against my scalp that it felt like rocks poured from above. I miss the rain, how it was a big wet blanket placed gently over the rooftops to dampen the sirens and screaming, the noise outside of Mom’s apartment. In the desert, the quiet makes my skin hurt and my muscles go tense, like I’m at the side of a pool with my eyes closed, waiting for someone to push. At night, I open a can of fizzy water and place it right beside my head on a nightstand slick with faded pamphlets from all walks of god. The air snapping against the thin metal sounds almost like rain, like tin roofs, sweet pavement, a life before Godmother, a life before drought. I clasp my cold knees to my chest, burrow deeper into the hollows of my bones. I was never thirsty before. I am always thirsty now.
All day long, Godmother works and I haunt the house. I drift from room to room, see how quiet I can be, how I can tip-toe up the stairs to the loft and not make a single sound. If I’m quiet enough I wonder if I will disappear entirely to where things go when they stop being: somewhere familiar but empty like the memory of a womb. I go through all of Godmother’s things, the kitchen cabinets sticky with peeling perfumed paper, lined with strange jerky-ed meats, jars and jars of dusty root vegetables, pickled beans and corn and peaches with faded labels from a market I don’t recognize. I go through her utensil drawers, her junk drawers, sift through cool metal keys and dented bullets and branded bottle openers but I don’t find any messily taken notes, blurred phone numbers, or even takeout menus. I go through her coat closet, try on camos and fur-lined jackets, sift the pockets for ski tags and airline tickets, find only lint and curled up critters, little fossilizations of the last place she went. I sift through her underwear drawer, beneath her pillow, the furthest crevices of her mattress but I don’t find any love letters in thin weepy cursive, no photographs of abandoned children, or dead pets, or of her before this place, this age. I find nothing that links her to the real world, nothing that links her to me.
Sometimes when I feel really soupy, like what I imagine a clam feels like, all phlegmy and confused and frosted like a window, I try to remember the car ride that brought me here, or if it was an airplane or a cargo train or if I had met Godmother before, at a family party or at a church luncheon or at Mom’s work. I can’t imagine Godmother, stocky and soft, beneath the neon twinkling lights at Mom’s work, I don’t remember seeing her reflected and tripled before the mirrors. I only grasp at the fringes of some sparse clippings, unfamiliar highways and trees growing squatter and a gas station bathroom slowly filling up with water. This unknowing makes me tremble and sweat cold so I repeat back the story Godmother tells me often when I pretend I’m asleep. Fight, funeral, flight. Maybe that’s all there is.
Maybe here is where I’ve always been.
I decide to wait up for Godmother. I have tried before but she comes home quiet and very late, so I fall asleep before I can ask any questions. In the afternoon, I make lentil soup in the microwave and a big pot of coffee—the only thing Godmother has asked me not to touch. She said it would make me wild, that no addiction is a good one to start.
The coffee is thick and tastes like dirt and I nearly spit it out, but I want to ask Godmother when I will be safe, so I swallow and gag my way through two cups. I go jittery and sweaty and nervous, feel like my skin is too tight and being stretched like pizza dough between too big hands, and I tremble around the living room. My knees wobble while I do jumping jacks in place until I can feel acid crawling up my throat and I’m nearly sick so I lay down on the carpet face down and close my eyes real tight and feel my heartbeat pulse in my throat and that’s where Godmother wakes me asleep hours later.
She cradles me to her chest, flannel warm and smelling like disinfectant and moss. I can feel her heart beating against her rib bones. Don’t do that to me, she says into my hair. I thought you were hurt, I thought you were dead.
I tell her I tried to stay awake, that I wanted to see her, that I wanted to ask her questions. She pushes me away so I hover there, half with her, half on my own. Silly girl, she coos. And she doesn’t sound angry or hurt so I decide it’s safe to ask when I can go home and what I will be free.
She holds my two wrists together tight in her hands and I want to free them so that I can move the hair out of my eyes and my mouth, so I can look into her face and foresee what’s going to come out of her mouth and her eyes.
Silly girl, she whispers. You are home. You are free.
Silly girl, I think as I fall into an itchy sleep, to think I was safe.
I have nearly run out of things to do during the day while Godmother’s working. I have gone through all her things, I have read all her god-pamphlets, tested out the crisply folded paper-prayer mats that promised if I wished hard enough, the purple drawing of Jesus would open his eyes and deliver me, from what and to where I’m not sure. I wanted it, I wished and prayed for him, for anyone, to speak with me, to hold me with their eyes. I tried for hours to get something from him, a smile or a blink or a whisper, but all he did was weep.
Now I spend my time cleaning the house, not because Godmother asked me to or because I dislike the mess, but because I want to feel the power of my arms; the exhaustion settle in my spine after a day of moving and sweeping and scrubbing. I busy myself with cleaning until the walls shine, until the skin on my palms peel up in flakes like fish food.
I crouch on the floor, my bare knees raw and scraping against the wood. I lean down so close that I leave wet little eyeball marks on the floor and when the direction of the afternoon sun hits just right, I can see the thin trail of dirt in the cracks. I want to get it out, to make the house clean and safe so I pick dirt, dust, and crumbs from between the slates with my fingernails. I dig my fingernail in and flick up again and again until it is all out on the floor and I can inspect it, lick it up like ancient herbs and soothsay, see glimpses of the future but not the whole thing.
I have decided to be grateful for Godmother because without her I would be cold and hungry and alone, and in the house, I am only cold and hungry, but I’m not so alone. I’m lonely sometimes, which is ungrateful, but I can’t help it so when I want to cry, I talk to the taxidermized deer heads mounted on the wall. I don’t talk to them about anything secret, not my wants or how I’m steadily losing faith in God and Godmother because sometimes in their glassy eyes I think I can see someone watching. Maybe someone is waiting for me to make a mistake.
I push the tartan couch against the wall, climb up onto the creaking back so I can get up close and look into their eyes, glassy and violent, death-questions frozen in the marbles. I ask them what the last thing they thought was when Godmother or whoever shot them, decided when they would hit the ground. I look into their eyes and wait for the answers, for any sign that they heard or that anyone is watching.
I don’t touch them even when I need to hold something against my chest—I’ve made that mistake before. There is nothing warm about taxidermized animals—they are cold and sticky and a bit too dry, like everything a body isn’t or shouldn’t be. Their eyes are slick like puddles or camera lenses and I can see something white and moony reflected upside down in the glimmery pool but I can’t figure out what it is.
One night I feel very alone and cold (but not hungry — I had eaten a half-pack of butter cookies that made me feel woozy and buoyant with sugar), so I take a taxidermized rabbit from its place on the shelf and hug it so close my wrists ache. I focus on the inconsistent popping of the fizzy bubble rain outside. I pull the sheets up around us and its body is so cold and hard, its little lucky feet sharp and immobile, useless. I tap my fingernail on its chest to the rhythm of the rain and it has a hollow sound, like a log of wood. Once Mom told me that if the earth was the size of a marble, if they could shrink it down or make us bigger, the human finger could feel the houses and the highways and the tops of trees, the curves of the rivers. That’s how sensitive we are. But I can’t feel the bunny’s heartbeat at all.
When I wake, it’s midday and the rabbit is gone, along with all the taxidermy animals, the deer heads and barn owls and squirrels with fluffy, curving tails. Out back of the house, I can see smoke rising in huge dirty curls up from behind the shed and Godmother’s truck is in the driveway. It smells strange, not like the wood fires or the greasy-meat smell of barbeques, or the sweet rip of gasoline fire, but something plasticky, panicky, afraid. It reminds me of the city, of Mom’s hand wrapped tight around mine.
I open a can of fizzy soda from the fridge. I fold up the futon and stare at the wood walls, unblinking and blank but without the death-questions shadowed on its egg-shell paint. I bite into the bones of my fingers and feel the joints go weak, squishy in my mouth. Maybe no one has been watching. Maybe I have been alone this whole time.
Godmother wakes me asleep in the bathtub. The water is so cold and my whole body is a paper cut beneath an air conditioner. My tongue feels too big and my mouth tastes sour like salt. She kisses my forehead, her hand on the back of my head pulling me up toward her. She frowns deep into her smile lines, and I tremble as she asks me if I’m happy. I hold my shoulders and say I am hungry and cold and alone.
That is happy too, she reminds me, winking her sparklingly gray eyes. I want to slither down the drain and into the rusting sewer, swim to someone else’s home with a fireplace and sourdough and a family, big and wild and so so loud. I watch my belly button wiggle beneath the clear water as Godmother wrings her wet hair out over the bathtub, droplets tickling my goosepimpled skin. She takes the one bath towel from the hook by the standing shower and wraps her long sunset hair up in a twist. She leaves for work, and I go back to sleep to the sound of the faucet dripping. When I wake again, the tub is dry and I am warm.
Godmother only takes me out on the first Saturday of every month. We go to the flea market where bearded bald men sell brass lamps and memorabilia from their youth, flakey baseball cards and defeated footballs and aching antique typewriters with letters marked into the rubber paperless roll like a secret code: ᴀᴀᴀᴇᴇXXXˣᴜ??! ʰₑˡˡₒ! ˡₒᵛₑ } ᵈ ˣˣ ₐₛₒᵈᶠʰ ₒ ₖₖₐǫǫǫǫǫ ?!? I lean close, try to interpret it, search the black-on-faded-black for a message meant for me, a person reaching across the thin strings of time to say they know where I am and here is how to get out. The longer I read, the more I feel like I’m watching a movie in a language I don’t understand, how half the sounds seem like ones I know but I can’t line them up right to make any meaning. All I know is that a couple is fighting and crying and the man keeps repeating I love and girl.
Godmother buys me popcorn that tastes like sawdust and I follow her from stall to stall, licking the grease sliding in between my knuckles and down the bruised edge of my wrist. She buys glass ponies and soft animal pelts, scented candles and Styrofoam pears, all trade, cash is sinner’s currency, she reminds me. I suck salt and look at my teal sneakers and when we drive back, I hold the glass ponies in my lap. I watch the desert rush by outside the window, tortured Joshua trees and dried cacti and pock-marked rocks, tilted homes for scaled and desperate creatures. I unfocus my eyes until my brain hurts and I am a soul hurtling through a vast blue unknown in the wrong direction. I am small and atomic, bursting toward something unavoidable.
Godmother taps her nails on the steering wheel and sings hymns that sound like the ones Mom used to hum when we walked home from her work late, through the alleys, dark and jumbled with trash and broken things and misplaced people. She held my hand and I could feel the humming like static through her fingertips as we passed by the neon blinking signs and the clubs and men grabbed at my shoulders, at her drifting soft hair. Godmother’s humming makes me shiver so the glass ponies chatter in my lap but I protect them in my palms. I keep them from scattering across the landscape of the peeling truck floor.
Godmother doesn’t go to church on Sundays. She says it’s the devil’s snare, but I think she prefers to work because she gets time-and-a-half at the plant. Mom didn’t go to church that much either, so I know how to worship alone. On Sundays I wake early and pray. I kneel low to God and beg for warmth, and food, and family and then I beg forgiveness for my begging, for my wants and how big they are, how deep.
I press my forehead against the cool, half-clean floor and ignore the dirt in the cracks, all the imperfections and what little I do to be grateful for what I have. I beg for rain until I cry, which feels almost like a sign of better things coming instead of a wet reminder of my fleshiness, my limits.
I imagine Mom’s song but I can’t remember how it goes, only the way the round bone, like a knuckle in her throat, vibrated beneath her skin and how it made me so scared that she was so thin like she was evaporating right in front of me. I could almost see right through her when she sang and how she could die any moment, and then I think about how easily she did.
I wake in the middle of the night. There is no fizzy can of soda beside my head, Godmother stopped buying them, she said I was being wasteful as she poured them out, flat, in the sink. I drink tap water now so my mouth is filled with the metallic taste of blood. It’s dark and I can hear rain, tinkling delicately against the rooftop. It is raining in the desert tonight, and I feel dipped in reverie, like I should be grateful for what little I get, for the violence of nature and the hurtling and the space and how I am all of it and not just a soul haunting. I can hunt, if I want. I can hurt.
I run outside in my bare feet, wet desert sand squishing sharp between my toes. It’s so cold I want to scream but I can’t wake Godmother, I’m not allowed outside. I kneel on the wet dirt and shiver as the rain hits the curved bones in my spine. I am so hungry, and cold and alone and I thank God. I press my mouth into the dirt, taste soil and earth and me. I am hungry, I scream, I am free.
A hand, tight and clammy, wraps around my bicep, so I jump, I jerk. Is this what Godmother fears about the outside, the strength of strange hands that hunt in the night? But when I turn, it’s Godmother, hunched over me like a giant, hair loose and darkening with the rain. She pulls me up from the ground and shakes me like a baby tree, the bones in my neck crunch, churn against my spine. I think I know how Mom felt as her head met concrete, as her soul fell back into her head, and I wait to be crumbled, to be put to the ground.
The corner of Godmother’s eyes pull down and I see fear, not anger. Then I don’t feel powerful, I don’t feel holy or timeless or free. I feel small and sharply alive, like my skin is lined with pushpins and I don’t know if they’re poking me or her.
When I think about it later, at night when I’m alone in my futon, I am scared by how I had no death-question, how in my final moment I would have died without asking why.
I haven’t left the house again since that night.
Header photograph by Yasmin Nadiyah Phillip.