Jennifer Gravley: The Replacement Mother
(from Issue Four)
I WAKE AND find my mother has been replaced. She looks like herself or like someone who looks like her—I have long since given up looking at my mother straight on—but she is unusually gentle with me. Not once as I slurp my milk-sogged flakes does she remind me of the toll the months I spent fattening her belly took on her career. I know from my father that she paid her company cash to erase the time afterward she spent at home with me at her breast from their records.
I wonder if my waking was a false waking, a waking into dream, but many days pass at the usual deadening pace with the usual deadening detail. I brush my teeth, and they do not fall out or turn into slices of orange wax candy. My replacement mother goes to my mother’s work and to the fruit stall where we procure honey and bread and to my parent-teacher conferences. No one remarks, “Eliska Kysley, you have changed,” but it is clear that everyone finds her subtly more charming. She brings home a fuller pocketbook than my mother, and my marks slowly ascend without effort or sign of increasing intelligence. My father finds the honey she pours from the pot sweeter.
My replacement mother grows comfortable in my mother’s body. She becomes generous and then greedy. She buys me bars of chocolate without poking my stomach or sticking the long tip of her finger into my throat after. She sits contentedly for long stretches with my father’s hand on her thigh. She calls my mother’s mother to tell her about the new shoes, made from the skins of animals, that she keeps in my mother’s professionally organized closet. I can tell from the wrinkles in her skirt that she uses my mother’s small office to keep company with the men in her company.
My father’s pleasure recedes until he eats only dry bread stacked upon dry bread. One morning I will wake to find all the old rascally bits of him swapped out. I concentrate on constancy, writing the same words on spelling tests each week and washing my clothes in the sink each night. I search the city’s garbage bins for a photograph of my mother as we knew her so as to recognize her upon her return. With each gesture, this replacement mother says to me, live without hope, but I wake each morning with a pinch and say to myself, I will open my eyes to once more see my mother.
Jennifer Gravley makes her way in Columbia, Missouri. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Laurel Review, Ellipsis, Redivider, and Puerto del Sol, among others.