Short Story How to Move Through the Dark
The day the women left, Clary followed her mother to the water’s edge. She would’ve followed her under, too, if the other daughters hadn’t been there to hold her back.
Clary and Ruby sat on the roof of Clary’s adobe house in Albuquerque and watched the hot air balloons rise over the city the way they did every October, bright orange and blue and pink against a sunset you wouldn’t believe. It had been six months since their mothers left. All at once and without warning, every woman of a certain age, some mothers, some not, had picked up and walked to the nearest body of water.
The day the women left, Clary had followed the strange processional with the other daughters and sons, the men and the few remaining women who wept at being left behind. She followed her mother, Jean, eleven miles to Isleta Lakes and RV Park, a dirty desert pitstop on the side of Highway 25 with a free shuttle to the nearby casino. She followed her to the water’s edge and would’ve followed her under, too, if the other daughters hadn’t been there to hold her back. “They’ll come home,” one girl said, but even then Clary knew that wasn’t true.
Now, Clary lit a joint and inhaled twice before passing it to Ruby, who didn’t smoke. “Your mom won’t find out, you know,” Clary said, feeling mean, but Ruby just shrugged. Some girls had gone crazy after the mothers left—why bother following the rules if there was no one to punish you for breaking them?—but not Ruby. If the girls ever up and left for the water the way their mothers had, Ruby would end up somewhere good like her mom, who’d slipped into the Rio Grande, and Clary would end up in Isleta Lakes and RV Park, circling the murky shallows and avoiding the fishing lines gamblers cast on their days off. It wouldn’t be the worst thing, Clary thought. At least she’d be close to Jean.
Clary took another hit and the patch of overgrown weeds in the neighbor’s yard became the desert—thistle and small cane cholla that went on for miles. Clary was a mediocre swimmer, but in her mind’s eye she swam easily over these desert plants, saying hello to the lizards and snakes that moved along the ground below. When she came upon her neighbor Antonio’s sandaled feet, she wasn’t surprised. Of course he’d be sitting in a lawn chair in the desert at night. She followed his shin bone to his knee cap to the tattered cargo shorts he wore every day after work and there he was, lifting his beer in cheers to Clary, who nodded back and found herself once again on the roof of an empty house. Her mother was not inside blending margaritas, wearing gauzy dresses that would never belong in New Mexico. They don’t belong in Isleta either, she wanted to say, but what was the point? The mothers were gone. They were not coming back.
Antonio’s wife was one of the women who’d been left behind. She’d been working at the nail salon when it happened. Her customer, a regular, stood up, stripped down, and walked out, same as every other woman in the salon that day, leaving Antonio’s wife in an empty room, holding an open bottle of nail polish that would sit on a rack for months until someone, a man, turned the salon into a barbershop. It was not unusual for left-behind women to run away.
Now, Antonio lived alone. He went to work and came home, drank a few beers, and fell asleep watching TV in his living room. Every few days he checked his mail, which contained only overdue bills and coupons, an occasional postcard from his wife: Saw some buffalo. Hope you’re well. Sometimes Clary pocketed these postcards. Sometimes she didn’t. Sometimes the postcards featured old women wearing nothing but cat’s-eye glasses, a strange joke for a wife to play on the husband she left behind. Clary pictured her in a middle-of-nowhere gas station, browsing the spinning rack of postcards behind sunglasses that couldn’t hide her age. Clary wondered if she’d found other women like her, women who drove the Interstate looking for that unnamed something that would let them join their sisters in the water. She wondered if the air felt drier to them now, if it was hard to breathe.
As sunset faded into night and bats winged silently overhead, Clary followed Ruby off the roof, letting her body hang from the gutter before dropping onto the old dresser pushed against the house. She liked to feel the tendons in her shoulders stretch, her spinal column decompress. She’d read that astronauts who’d been in space a long time often lost bone density as a result of reduced gravity. She wondered if enough time had passed for the mothers’ bones to aerate.
In the house, Ruby turned on all the lights. The lamp with the torn shade by the couch and the kitchen light, the bathroom light, and the bedroom lights. It didn’t matter that Clary, fifteen, had no money to pay the electric bill. With half the workforce missing, there were bigger fish to fry than debtors. Thieves, for example, and rapists.
In Jean’s old room, Ruby put on a Joni Mitchell record and began sifting through Jean’s purses and platform heels, her sunglasses and kimonos, all the things she’d brought back from California when she was done trying to be an actress. Jean had been an extra in exactly three films, and Clary had watched each a thousand times, rewinding the part where her mother hurries across the screen to catch a taxi, or smiles at the leading actor, or applies lipstick in the bathroom mirror while starlets talk about sex. Three lessons in womanhood Clary wouldn’t soon forget, thanks to the near-perfect memory of the silver screen.
If her mother had found something good beneath the surface, Clary wanted to know what it was.
Ruby watched these films, too, though she had hundreds of home videos of her own mom. Nita singing barefoot in the kitchen. Nita feeding her daughters chewable vitamins while they, distracted, ham it up for the camera. Nita reading a book in bed. Nita drinking coffee. Ruby didn’t know how good she had it, this abundance of mothering preserved in three-minute increments.
Now, Ruby slipped Jean’s fake diamond earrings into her ears and looped a long strand of plastic beads around her neck, red and blue and yellow. She folded over the vanity and applied Jean’s lip color, Cherries in the Snow, with the same careful precision Jean had demonstrated in the movies. She turned her face this way and that, examining herself out of the corner of her eye as though she might see something new—a silver scale, the pink swell of gills opening on her neck. As though, if she let her eyes unfocus, the person watching back might become her mother.
“I’m hungry,” Ruby said, wrapping her arms around her stomach. “Let’s make steak Diane. Or chicken mole.” Ruby kept her mother’s recipe book on her bedside table. An heirloom, the pages were handwritten in Ruby’s grandmother’s loopy cursive, with Nita’s angular notes in the margins. The grocery stores weren’t as well stocked as they once were, but Ruby still pushed a cart through the aisles, using her mother’s lists and her father’s money to buy ingredients for complicated meals.
“With what?” Clary asked. Her pantry, which had been her mother’s pantry, was still full of preserved things. Clary’s mom had been content to boil water for macaroni and cheese, adding diced ham or brussels sprouts and lots of pepper, so Clary was, too.
The Joni Mitchell album needed to be turned, but Clary let the static crackle. She liked the sound, dusty almost, and the space it opened in the room. Sometimes, in the time before, she and Jean had lain on the bed, listening to the pop-pop-pop of the record until one of them fell asleep.
Ruby turned the record over and flopped on the bed with a bag of pretzels. “Then let’s watch Mystic Pizza again,” she said. The girls were working their way through the library’s collection of DVDs. They loved Blue Lagoon and hated Blue Jasmine . They wanted to be Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord in Philadelphia , proud and wanted at the same time. They wanted to be Kate Hudson as Penny Lane in Almost Famous , before the overdose. For the duration of each movie, an hour and a half, maybe two, the girls belonged to one woman or another, Meryl Streep or Susan Sarandon or Julie Andrews. Still, there was Jean putting on lipstick. There was Nita drinking coffee. The girls never forgot who their real mothers were.
Clary shook her head. “I watched it this morning.” She thought of Leona and all those girls with their matching hair, dark and thick and curly. Her own hair was dirty blonde, like her mother’s, unerringly straight. “Let’s go to Isleta.”
Ruby pouted. “We went there yesterday.”
“But tonight’s the full moon,” Clary said.
Their mothers had left beneath a full moon, and every full moon since, the daughters had gone to the water hoping to lure them back. Some brought homemade cookies, others brought silk scarves and bottles of perfume. Some cast lines with earrings as hooks, and some drove remote controlled boats with their names written on the bottom like this careful arrangement of letters might still hold meaning to the women who’d left so much behind. Some girls had gone swimming, their bodies the ultimate bait, but when a girl drowned and no mothers came to the surface to ferry her body to shore, almost everyone gave up. Not Clary. If her mother had found something good beneath the surface, she wanted to know what it was.
“Promise you won’t get in?” Ruby asked.
“Promise,” Clary said, though she didn’t mean it. She pulled on her mother’s favorite sweater, soft blue wool, and tugged the sleeves over her hands. She knew the water would be cold, but it didn’t matter. She wanted to be swallowed whole. She wanted to be held.
After the disappearance, the girls whose mothers were in Isleta huddled together at the water’s edge, watching the surface for their mother’s arms arcing through the air as they came for the girls they’d forgotten. The girls waded in. They dipped their faces below the surface and blinked against the silt, but the water was empty. “If they don’t come for us,” the girls said, “then we’ll go to them,” and they began to prepare. They swam laps in public pools and learned sign language so they could speak without air. They stared up through bathwater until black sparks shimmered in their peripheral vision. A few brave girls took deep underwater breaths, trying to activate whatever evolutionary trick had turned their mothers into fish, but their bodies refused to adapt and instead of becoming something else, whatever thing now came after girl , they drowned.
Full moons no longer called so many to Isleta. Aside from the few RVs running their generators, lonely men taking a break from the casino to eat a frozen dinner and catch up on sports, Clary and Ruby were alone. They sat on a boulder at the water’s edge, eating pretzels and sipping wine and writing notes to their mothers, like they always did.
I hope the water is warm where you are, Ruby wrote. I know how much you hate the cold.
The cat is dead, Clary wrote. I buried her in the backyard, but the neighborhood dogs dug her up.
When they were finished, they held a lighter to the paper the way they’d seen girls do in the movies. They knew to name this ritual, and they knew to get good and drunk afterward so the walk home would be sloppy with contact and almost-kisses. But the moon was full and the park was empty and Clary had learned from her mother that giving up was only okay if you found something better, and how could Clary know what was better if she didn’t know what her options were? Clary stripped down to her underwear and pulled the snorkel mask she’d packed from her bag.
“What’re you doing?” Ruby asked. “You promised.”
“Don’t you want to know what it’s like? Aren’t you curious?”
“No,” Ruby said. Clary knew she meant it. Her mother wasn’t in Isleta. She wasn’t in any local body of water, nowhere Ruby could visit, nowhere she could kiss the water and speak, hoping the sound waves of her voice would carry to her mother so that she’d know her daughter still walked the earth, still breathed air the way she’d been taught. Ruby’s mother had left herself in a hundred videos and voicemails, and though Clary knew they would grow up and need more than this, for now it was enough to hear Nita’s recorded voice saying goodnight, sweet dreams, see you in the morning .
She turned her face this way and that, as though she might see something new—a silver scale, the pink swell of gills.
The water was cold and dark, but the goosebumps that rose on Clary’s skin were from the sure feeling that there were bodies moving beneath hers. As Clary swam away from shore, something brushed against her leg, something soft like a mother, and when she dipped her face beneath the water, this is what she saw:
Ten moon-faced bodies, bubbles slipping from the slits in their necks that allowed them to breathe underwater. They had no fins or tails or webbing between fingers. Aside from the gills, their bodies had remained unchanged, recognizable as human mothers, soft in all the same places. Clary studied the hair, long or short or curly, that drifted in directionless clouds, but she couldn’t tell which one belonged to her. Their eyes had all gone pale, their features softened to the point of anonymity. When they touched the bones of her feet, their hands slick like moss, Clary couldn’t tell one mother’s touch from another’s. They were all her mother, or none of them were. She watched their cupped hands cut through the water, she watched their legs kick in unbroken lines; she watched the way they rolled over, leading with their shoulders as they looked down the length of their bodies at her.
She followed the mothers as they cut through the water like a school of fish, their bodies flashing silver as they turned. No matter how fast Clary swam, the mothers swam faster. Clary dove after them. She was so close to something, to the place where they slept and ate, the place where they lived their underwater lives. There, just ahead—was that a village of lake grass? Was that a door with a knocker?
But Clary was not a mother. She did not have gills, and before she could see where the mothers lived, the secrets that they kept, she was forced to the surface by an animal urge to breathe.
At home, Ruby sat on the radiator while Clary took a hot shower, letting the lake water rinse from her body. “What were they like?” Ruby asked.
Clary wanted her friend to believe her mother was still hers, so she lied. “The same. But sadder.”
Ruby helped Clary blow-dry her hair, sending heat down her back to erase the cold, and after, tucked side-by-side in Jean’s old bed, they listened the static of the record player like a lullaby.
“I don’t want them to be sad,” Ruby said, her voice soft with sleep.
The girls had each seen their mother sad—Nita with her soundless tears and Jean with her slack-jaw hollow squint, like she was too tired to focus her eyes enough to see—and Clary knew that Ruby was imagining her mother’s underwater tears, the way bubbles would rise from her neck like sobs. The underwater women didn’t look like this at all, but saying so wouldn’t have made either of them feel better.
Across the street, Antonio had left the TV on, late-night reruns of a detective show where two attractive people try to solve a gruesome homicide, but their living bodies are too much of a distraction and they fuck in the backseat of the stakeout car, then spend the rest of the episode fighting about whether or not they should’ve fucked. Clary had seen this episode before. She knew the dead girl had been murdered by her jealous boyfriend, and that the boyfriend would go free on account of a clerical mistake made by one of the distracted detectives, which would only further prove to both parties that no, they should not have fucked.
Jean had been in a pilot episode for a show like this. She was the dead girl, shown blue through the plastic bag zipped over her face. The show never aired, which meant Clary didn’t have to watch and rewatch her mother teaching her how to be dead, which meant tonight, bone-cold from the lake where women lived like fish, Clary didn’t know the first thing about closing her eyes to the world, so she didn’t. Beneath the bathroom’s fluorescent light, she swept glitter around her eyes. She filled her hair with hairspray so it floated in the air like water. She locked the door on her sleeping friend and drove into town, where men offered to buy her drinks, calling her sweet thing and mama , and she let them. She could be a mother. She knew how to move through the dark and disappear.
Clary couldn’t tell one mother’s touch from another’s. They were all her mother, or none of them were.
“Hey sweetheart,” one man said. Twice her age, he had a chipped tooth and a strong chin, close-shaven. The chain around his neck was silver. He smelled of cigarettes and Axe.
Clary pressed a palm to his heart and felt its beat, faster than hers. He took her hand and kissed it. “I’m a good person,” he said. He studied the glitter around her eyes, her drifty hair. “Don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know anything about you,” Clary said. She liked rigidity of his skeleton against hers. She pressed the heel of her hand into his eye and felt the soft tissue compress inside the socket.
“Say I’m good,” the man said, resting his cheek against Clary’s chest, tucking himself against her like he was small enough to be held. “Say I’m a good boy.”
Clary cradled the man and told him everything she knew: that he smelled like cigarettes and Axe; that his necklace was silver; that he’d done a nice job shaving and it didn’t matter that his tooth was chipped, he was handsome anyway. Against her chest, the man wept. “Please,” he begged, gripping her dress in his fists. “Please, Ma. Tell me I’m still good.”
Clary didn’t know what the man had done or not done. She didn’t know where his mother was—Isleta or the Gulf or the Pacific—and she didn’t know what criteria she had used to decide whether or not her boy was good. She didn’t know if it mattered.
“I believe you,” Clary said, meaning he could be good if he wanted to, meaning he could decide for himself what good meant, and so could she.
In the street, glittering beneath a small host of stars, Clary walked. No one followed her. Not mothers or fathers, not drunks or bums or lonely boys too young to be out this late. Not Ruby. She was alone inside this glitter shell, these bones that had been made inside her mother’s belly, a slow thundering of cells as they split and split and split, and though she couldn’t picture her mother’s body here, moving beneath these stars, still she walked, her body knowing exactly which direction to go.