I wake up gaping like a force-fed duck when they strip its liver out to make foie gras. My body is here, my mind over there and outside something thuds like a dry heave. It’s dark still and two birds flap violently out of my tree, collide in mid-air and fall dead. I look to see if he’s written. One eye open all night long, checking in my sleep. The fire pulls. I threw on a couple of damp, hollow logs and stuck my head halfway up the chimney till they caught. The room filled with smoke. Mum and Dad’s photo on the hearth. I was dreaming, am dreaming, of lupins, stems of flowers blooming white, pink and lilac, then the pods and seeds begin to form. I woke up. A sound on the stairs, four legs in freefall land in my lap. I sit and doze facing the boarded-up window with my hand laid over the cat. The child comes tumbling down the stairs. Bloody-kneed, calling for me. Mum. Mum. I’m awake in the rocking chair right by the banister but I keep my eyes tight shut. The fire no longer there. I have to get something to rub on his knees, I have to comfort him but I can’t move. The image of a young woman like white cows pushing at the wood-panelled window, desperate to spear her way in. A boar-woman flattening the fence, ready to trample me, that stranger who has me up against the bars. Where’s the surgical spirit asks the boy, where’s the surgical spirit madame ask the illegal workers peering out of their booths, look, lady, he’s bleeding on the stones. I find the bottle, clean the wound and put my arms around my son. But he’s grown too big, too long, he’s outstripping me. As I climb the stairs, his feet dangle and swing and I drop him not far from the top. You’re too heavy now, you great big lump, his body doubling mine. When he turns away to get dressed I look down at the bright pure specks on the white stones. Then we climb into the mangled car and off I go, the needle jumping to the top and the speed making him sick. The lycée door locked, we pound with our fists and scream our heads off like a couple of misfits. The caretaker glares through the glass, she’s used to us now, then lets us in and he disappears down the corridors. I swear he always sneaks straight out the other side.
Impossible to describe a whole day in his arms, heavy artillery fire amid roars of laughter and tortured venison pâté. Halcyon days. A woodland picnic in fancy dress, him in shorts and braces, me in a smock stamped with smeary hydrangeas. An afternoon with the crossbow, the catapult, smoking and half-litre bottles. Lighting cigars and snuffing them out when our mouths are musty sculptures. An afternoon in convoy to the local fair, to try our luck on the Gypsies’ rusty slot machines, then trying again, tipping in whole tubs of coins until the prizes come cascading out and we jump up and down among the caravans. From the glass case full of garish tags, we pick a laser gun. And then we scribble all over the river, with the laser between our legs we write our names in capitals and wrap them in a heart, just like the one he draws in sperm on my face. Or all over the flying centipede where couples drool on each other, sheltered by the canopy as they clatter round the bend. A salty kiss with tongues and chewing gum just before the jolt. A liquid kiss in the gap of the lips. We’ll go to the sea one day he says and it’s enough for me, to the sea one day. An impossible kiss. Back to the mental age when the world was all wide-open craggy heights. The mental age of questions. Why do the Alps make you want to die. Why can’t the heart keep still and why isn’t the brain smooth to the touch. The mental age of unwholesome love. Why is ogling each other so terrifying, back to the pure age of my only son. What’s it like being old, Mum? When I grow up you’ll be deader than dead, by the time I’m a father you won’t be a mother, don’t get upset, and he laughs. The two of us stare at the motorway, imagine spilling oil by the gallon then getting out of the way to watch the cars skid, spin like turnstiles and capsize.
I know he left at the end of the afternoon and I waved goodbye through the window, smiled in the rear-view mirror, my lips discoloured and his silk scarf wrapped around my head. I know I went to pick my son up from school and he came out embarrassed in front of his classmates and slunk into the back seat. I look at how I’m dressed. I don’t see the problem. And he requested upbeat music and on the suspension bridge over the sandbanks asked me what we were doing that weekend. But I just drove to the supermarket. We filled the trolley with tins, ant poison, cold meats and ran down the aisles, pocketing batteries and disposable razors, sometimes switching things around on the shelves. All smiles and lovey-dovey whispers together at the checkout and then I pay, we take the bags and head for the exit as usual. Him whistling a ballad and me gazing out at the clouds strangling the sky. The line of trolleys moving by itself between the dented cars when a man shows us his badge and asks us to follow him. The minor and me in the basement, stacks of boxes everywhere, wads of banknotes counted by gloved hands and security guards. Excuse me, what’s that in your pockets? Razors and batteries fall to the floor. How old is the boy? Is he your son? Is he in school? We have some questions for him, routine stuff, and he’s led away and surrounded by women in pencil skirts. But it’s only me he looks at. It’s only me he loves. A caution from the local police, next up a visit from social services and a criminal record. And nothing for us to shave with.
On the way home, darting over the tarmac ahead we see a rabbit with blue eyes. We honk the horn, shout through the windows. My son reaches right out and the wind helps him stroke her but she’s running too fast, never straying off the road. We splash her with water but she won’t go into the trees, she won’t be drawn by the forest. We see her bounding, flying, soaring before us. We watch her take on the cars and escape unscathed, defying the law of the jungle. Then we cross the estuary fields and the sound of a swan’s beating heart is so intense that it makes us cry.
At the weekend we decamp to the lounge and the frozen garden. I play ping-pong on a table he assembled and painted but I can’t coordinate my hand movements and my son swears at me every time I serve. You need glasses, you need a girdle, you need more practice. My little ray of sunshine. We stop for a snack, chocolate milk with a drizzle of port, oatmeal biscuits and the hours edge by like a string of executions. With each rifle drill, the terror returns. My son dozes off, stretched long in my lap, his arm over my bare legs, my shawl, the weight of his head my first indication that he’s become a man. I dream of a sailing boat, him and me taking turns at the rudder. One of us down below opening the tin of sardines, changing the oil, polishing the tools. Both wearing turbans. And the day comes when I look at him and love him so much that I say wait for me on deck with your eyes shut. Then I reach under the bed for the sackcloth bag, the surprise, the gun and I shoot him.
It’s a shock waking up on a Saturday night and finding my son on top of me. Where are the other kids your age, what do they do, what makes kids your age laugh, where do they go, do they queue outside the nightclub with the wooden floor and mirror balls, do they fiddle with themselves behind the hill. How do they talk, what do they wear, what cigarettes do they smoke. Have the breakouts started, the wet dreams, are they allowed mopeds, what time do their progenitors expect them home. At the front door, his car with the see-through roof, full beams on the shrews as they nibble each other and I push him off. He folds into the chair. I get up with cramp but when I step outside the car surges away from the farm. Inside me everything darkens until the pines are swishing like whips.
Image © Brent Leimenstoll
This is an excerpt from Tender by Ariana Harwicz, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott and Carolina Orloff, published by Charco Press on 15 February 2022.