This page contains:
- Mental health issues
You’re forgetful, Mother. Out the window, the wide grassland stretches around the hotel. There is a long, straight scratch on the glass, as if someone tried to cut it down the middle. “Do you think we’ll find him?” I ask. “Do you think we’ll find Marc?”
You look at me with your best innocence and ask back: “Who is Marc?” Then some agony worms itself into your expression and I remember how helpless I used to feel around your unhappiness, that unbridgeable void. “Who’s Marc?” you ask again. You’ve forgotten my brother’s name. Or you don’t want to remember it.
I look away from the window for one moment to stare at you and when I turn back there’s a lake outside, still and clear, like your eyes.
I haul us across the country in rental cars that smell of fake pine. My driving is erratic, and I catch myself skittish behind the wheel, afraid, perhaps, that a lake might appear in front of us, suddenly, drink us up whole. The side of the road is littered with little red flags marking the places where the water is dangerously deep, the ground uncertain. We pass groups of men in orange jumpsuits. They peer into the spontaneous bogs, hugging ridged plastic tubes, brows furrowed, faces a blur.
Deborah from work calls to check on me. I tell her my mother is sick, which is not a lie, except how is one supposed to explain what it is that’s wrong with you, how to explain the lakes, this constant welling up from the soil of undercurrents that should remain hidden?
I imagine the way that conversation would go if I said what is truly on my mind.
“She’s sick. Can’t help it,” I would say.
“And her symptoms … are lakes?” Deborah would ask.
“Among other things.”
A pause. “Is it contagious?”
I would think of your stories, then, of lakes proliferating, of whole villages swallowed up, only church spires left peeking above the surface, like a cross marking an underwater grave.
“I don’t know,” I would reply, and it would be the truth.
And what causes it? Is it grief? Some desire to let things go, bury them under tons of water, so no one can find them again? Or, perhaps: to make yourself an island, so no one can reach you.
Instead, Deborah sighs deeply and audibly, jarring me back to the present. “Take as much time as you need, honey,” she says while yellow landscapes blur past outside.
I can hear Deborah scribbling something on a piece of paper. Doodling spirals, probably, repetitive whorls climbing up and down the margins of her reports. She always does that, and then she has to print them out again on pristine paper, unmarred by her restless fingers. “I wish there was something I could do.”
“There’s nothing,” I say. “But thank you.” I think of Adrian, wonder if he’s there, listening in to the conversation. I wonder if he’ll text.
I end the call.
We settle into another B&B. We’ve only been here a couple of hours, but I run my palm over the wall and it comes away wet. You are staring, something fearful in your eye. “I don’t know where we are,” you say. “Why did you bring me here?”
I walk closer and fold you in an embrace. You used to be a big woman, and now I can wrap my arms all the way around you and almost hug myself. “I didn’t bring you here,” I say. “You wanted to find him all of a sudden.”
I look you in the eye and don’t reply. There is a glint of recognition, and you look away. Is this shame? “Are there lakes outside?” you ask. “I think I heard him call. Has he come?”
I think you mean Marc, so I say, “No, Mum. We’re looking for him. He doesn’t know we’re looking for him.”
Now, after everything, I wish I had asked who you meant.
We arrive at the trailer park where we lived before you decided we should move away, leave Marc behind. You often called it “our little escape,” like it was just this cheeky thing we once did. I wondered for years how a parent could make that decision. To keep one child and abandon the other. I thought perhaps one day I’d make myself ask you that.
There is a pond near the entrance of the trailer park, which you eye suspiciously but say nothing about. You act guilty, and that scares me, because your guilt so often precedes your rage.
A woman with red curly hair lounges outside her trailer, sipping iced tea from a tall glass with a pride-coloured straw. She sets the glass down as soon as she sees you. “Oh my fucking lord,” she exclaims. She stands up and throws her arms open for you.
I’ve never seen anyone react this way to you before. Makes me think of how little I know you, how much about you there is I’ve missed, how much you’ve tucked away, out of sight.
And you, you let out a happy shriek, like a teenager, and surrender yourself to the woman’s embrace. “Linda!” you shout. You rock in each other’s arms for a while, the woman teetering so much in her platforms that I worry you’ll both fall over.
Finally, you step back, and there are tears streaming down your face. Linda wipes them away with the backs of her palms and kisses your cheeks saying, “oh, my darling, my poor, dear darling.” She wraps her arms around your shoulders and ushers you into her trailer.
When I’m almost certain she’s forgotten about me, she turns around and beckons me inside. “Come on, child,” she says. “Don’t stand there. It’s gonna rain soon.”
Even though there is not a single cloud in the sky, I believe her.
The inside of the trailer is crammed full of magazines—most of them about fishing and snorkelling and diving, even though we’re miles from the sea. It smells faintly of shrimp. The floods are on the news.
There is a familiar ease between you and Linda, as if your bodies know how to take up space around one another, and you fall into a cadence of conversation that speaks of years and years of friendship.
I don’t remember this woman, and she doesn’t seem to know me either. How is this possible?
Later, Linda produces a platter heaped with steamed shrimp that you proceed to eat with your hands.
“So how do you know each other?” I ask, trying to sound innocent.
You giggle. You seem younger, renewed, even your skin glows, taut over your cheekbones. The woman eyes me with a lopsided smile, a glint in her eyes. “From church, dear,” is all she says. “Eat your food.” Like I’m some kind of child.
Outside, the heavens crack open. It pours.
It took me days to pry two words about Marc out of you, like an archaeologist excavating a human skeleton with a brush, speck of dust by speck of dust. Yet you speak to Linda of him as if he’d always been on your mind. As if anyone would be a fool to think he’d ever left.
“Do you know the name of the foster parents that took him in after we left?” you ask Linda. You say we, as if this was a decision we made together, as if I had any say in anything that happened, back then. Not your child, but your accomplice.
“Oh pet, it was so long ago,” Linda says, cupping your hand with hers, her long nails tapping a rhythm on the linoleum table, like a drum.
“Anything at all,” you plead.
For a long time, you hadn’t given us names. Neither first nor last, until the government made you. I remember being nameless. My name still feels strange, not entirely mine, more like a garment I’ve grown attached to than a skin. In namelessness, I knew myself by texture. Knew my brother by feel. He felt pliable and moist and familiar. And you. You were always Mother.
“Let me ask around,” Linda says. “Maybe someone will remember something.”
You nod. “Okay,” you say. “Okay.”
I munch on a piece of toast and avoid your eyes. I drink the silty coffee that Linda brews by the potful. I take it black and burn my tongue on it, by accident first, then on purpose. “So which church was this?” I ask.
Linda looks at me the way you look at something that shouldn’t be able to talk. “Pardon me, dear?”
“You said you know each other from church?” I look at her innocently. You taught me well, Mother.
“Oh, right.” Linda laughs. “It was torn down ages ago. But we worshipped together for a long time after that.” She turns to you. “Didn’t we, love?”
You look young. Younger than you looked when I was nameless and you were only Mother, Mum, Mummy. You throw your head back and let out a gurgling laugh, running your fingers through your hair, your face bacchanal.
I let you two be for hours at a time. You both make it clear I am not wanted, that I am an intruder, barely tolerated. Whenever I come in, it feels as if I stepped into the wrong room, walked into you doing something private or inappropriate. I take long walks around the trailer park, scouting for fresh-looking puddles and ponds. I think of Adrian again. He texted this morning to say he missed me. Then texted again to say he missed my cunt, as if to correct his own sentimentality. Lest I get the wrong idea.
Sometimes at work, when I stared at strangers’ sonograms, my mind drifted, and I forgot what it was I was looking at. The images turned aquatic: subcutaneous oceans, saphenous rivers, hypodermic lakes. A world drowned.
Now I can’t help but wonder: Is that why I chose this line of work?
Has anything ever been my choice? This, here—is it my choice?
I miss your cock, I text back.
“They sent him to a second foster family,” Linda says finally, sipping one of her many drinks. “I don’t know what happened after that. We lost track of him.”
She says it as if there was a whole community of people who came together for the sole purpose of tracking my brother after you, after we, abandoned him.
I get ready to ask the family’s name, where they lived, what they did, something to go on, but you get there first. What you ask takes me aback: “Were they good to him? Did they take care of him? Did he suffer?” The kind of question you’d ask of someone who died. Did they go easy? Was it quick?
“They were a good family,” Linda replies. “Had two of their own, and two other foster kids. Father was a foreman.” She waves her hand. “Construction, you know.”
When we part, Linda gives us a glass of water each. “Drink only half,” she instructs. “So you will come back.”
You drink half of yours obediently, looking at Linda over your glass.
I finish mine.
The night before we find the foster home, in one of the unremarkable B&Bs that shelters us this time, I tell you what I remember of Marc: he smelled of seaweed. His limbs were long and thin, like reeds. He had fine dark hairs on his arms and legs. Sometimes in summer we lay in the field beyond the park and I liked to lie on my stomach and he lay on his back and I watched the fine hairs sway in the breeze.
Your anger comes out of nowhere, like a leviathan suddenly breaking the surface of the water to wreak its havoc. “Shut up,” you shout. You throw an ashtray at me.
It misses my head by inches, finds the wall, smashes to pieces.
Outside, the owner is having the lake drained.
The woman who raised Marc is small and blond, with big brown eyes and thin lips. She’s so very little like you, you could be opposites. I wonder what it’s like to be raised by one woman and then by her exact inverse, as if your childhood is split down the middle by a mirror. She makes us coffee that she serves with some kind of fruit preserve, tangy but sweet. I don’t recognize the fruit from which it is made—an unsettling feeling, like discovering the world is larger and stranger than you thought. If a fruit can exist that you had failed to encounter in the forty years you’ve been alive, what else could be out there, waiting to be discovered?
The woman tells us her husband died years ago, soon after Marc left them to go to the city, to put himself through college, to make his life away from the memory of the trailer park and what birthed him into the world.
“What did he die of, your husband?” you ask, unkindly.
She stares at you for a minute before replying, as if unable to accept your cruelty. “You remind me so much of Marc,” she says. She says nothing else, falls silent for so long I don’t think she’ll speak again, but then she does. “The doctors didn’t know what it was. A bad cough. There was fluid in his lungs, but they couldn’t figure out what caused it.” She pauses and looks away. “Then one day he took himself to the water and walked in. I imagine him sometimes, walking into the sea until he disappears.”
She gives me a piece of paper, folded many times before we leave. I wonder why she gives it to me and not you. Perhaps she doesn’t trust you to follow this through. “Sommer,” she says. “Kept his first name. Marc Sommer. He’s a consultant for some big firm.” Then she hands me a small jar of that mysterious fruit preserve. “Marc really liked it,” she says. “Will you give it to him, if you find him?”
I nod. We head back to the car, the unknown wonder of the world weighing me down like an anchor.
The more you forget, the bigger the lakes get.
At first, they were puddles. I dismissed them easily, even when it hadn’t rained for days. Humans have such an admirable capacity for self-deception, when their survival depends on it.
Then there was a pond. I told myself I had simply missed it before.
But the lakes, I cannot ignore. The floods, the torrents, they’re constant now, they’re everywhere.
You pendulum between anger and tenderness, the way you always have. I remember every rain of glass. Every ashtray, every broken window, every cup shattering against the wall. Your tender moments last longer now, if anything. Age has softened your edges, made you round. I imagine you walking into my room at night, pulling the blanket up to my face and tucking it under my sides, silhouetting me.
You used to say our father was a sailor who sailed the wide seas of the world and got tattoos and a disease whose name nobody knew and that, once, he came home with a small iron knife with a wooden handle that was said to be cursed.
In other stories he’s a fisherman, a dolphin trainer, a pearl diver. Once, he was a man who hunted deer.
And in some stories, you tell us we don’t have a father at all. That men are good for so few things, and making babies is not one of them.
“I found you both among the reeds,” you say, “sprouted on the shores of a lake.” Or, “I was rowing my boat down a slow river and helped a giant carp who was trapped in a tangle of roots. It disappeared into the deep and then swam back and opened its mouth and there you were, two tiny babies, a boy and a girl, as thanks.” Or, “I dreamt I was drowning one day and, when I woke up, I found you sitting on the carpet of my living room, sucking each other’s thumbs.”
“But Marc was older than me, wasn’t he?” I ask you now in the half-dark of our rented room.
You ask for lime juice and refuse to talk to me until I bring it to you. I have to go to the shop, then Tesco because the corner shop doesn’t have any. But I do and I come back and I watch you drink small sips and smack your lips together, enjoying the sourness of your mouth.
“Wasn’t he?” I prompt you.
“Wasn’t he what?” you ask. “Wasn’t who what?” You lose yourself in the interrogatives, your story broken free from its moorings. “Who what when,” you exclaim. “Why where how!”
You don’t come back from the questions until late at night, when silence falls and all we can hear are your lakes, lapping quietly at their shores outside.
All it takes is a bit of googling. There are many summer people out there, but only one Marc with a c—a spelling quirk that the clerk who would give us our official names pointed out to you, but you jutted out your chin and insisted that name has been in your family for generations.
I find Marc’s email address, the firm for which he works. They even have a website with his face on it. My own eyes are looking back at me from the screen.
He has a home, a family, the whole catastrophe.
The night we arrive in the city, I find you outside, on your knees, mourning Marc’s death. “We had to leave him,” you say, “because he was a boy. Otherwise he would grow up to imprison us. Men always do.” I remember promising to you when I was little that I would never let myself be held down by a man.
Did you make me promise that, or did I decide on my own?
There is water welling up from the ground around your knees, and I’m afraid you’ll cry yourself into a lake, like some kind of nymph from long ago. You’re mourning your son, your only son. You remember his beautiful face, and then make your way through the layers of his body, as if reading through an inventory of grief: his skin, you say, his limbs, his muscles, the bones underneath it all, and further under still, the marrow. Marrow of my marrow you say, soul of my soul.
I grab you by the shoulders and shake you. Fury burns through me, as if this pointless mourning is the worst thing you’ve ever done. Later, I will not understand my reaction, and I will shy away from trying to.
I shake you and you cry like a child. You cannot fathom why I could be mad at you. “He’s not dead,” I scream in your face. “Shut up. He’s not dead.”
By morning, you’re gone.
Marc agrees to meet us at a café near where he lives. He’s expecting both of us, but of course you won’t be there. I think of calling the police, tell them you’re causing the floods, that you’re dangerous and must be found, stopped. I don’t. I leave all your things at the B&B. I check out and go.
I spot Marc with ease. It’s strange and weirdly satisfying, the way he stands out to me, like those trompe l’oeil tests where you have to pick out the inverted letter on a page, the squiggle facing the wrong way, the lonely bear in a reindeer scene. He doesn’t smell of seaweed anymore. Now he smells of expensive aftershave and tumble dryer sheets. But the eyes, I know them. They are the same as mine. We are the same.
He puts his arms awkwardly around me and buys me a flat white. He knows I like it with three sugars before I say anything. “Where’s Mum?” he asks me, eyeing the little stream flowing into the gutter outside.
Deborah calls again, but I let it go to voicemail.
“I don’t know,” I tell him. “I lost her.”
He sips his own flat white—too sweet, like mine. “You’ll stay with me, yes?”
I glance at him over my cup. “Won’t your family mind?”
He shrugs. “They’re not here. They went to stay with Libby’s folks for a while.”
“Fun?” I ask. “Or trouble?”
He shrugs again. “Sometimes I think people are not supposed to stay together. They’re just supposed to look for each other.”
He sips his coffee and doesn’t reply.
His flat is high up in one of those new developments with large windows that let the light in most of the day. The glare gives me a headache, but I bear it, watch the city flood slowly, gradually being submerged. I wonder if I’ll be like you, one day, cause my own lakes.
For dinner, my brother makes us steaks on a griddle pan. After a whole day of comparisons that ended with both of us marvelling at how identical we are (we hate blue, love white; the smell of chocolate bothers us unless we’re eating it; we imagine death to be like biting on cotton), we finally diverge: he likes his steak well done, almost burned; I want mine bloody. We sit at the dining table and eat and make small talk like everything is normal.
The floods have been front-page news for several days; now the authorities issue danger-to-life warnings. Adrian texts asking where I am, then texts again to warn me about flash flooding in the area. He’s thinking of me, he says. I think of cancerous lakes. Hypodermic whirlpools. Subcutaneous plagues.
“I knew you were coming the moment the first flood hit.”
He nods. “You were too young to remember, but this happened a lot when we were kids. The lakes. The flash floods with not a cloud in the sky. Whenever she got one of her moods.”
“I think I don’t know her at all.”
He shrugs. “Can we ever really know our parents?” he asks.
“Can’t we?” I ask back.
“We can love them more than anything and pretend we don’t or that we are finally over them and their damage, but in the end all we can do is stand by and watch the full spectacle of their betrayal.”
It seems he’s given all of this some thought. “Is this how your children feel about you, too?” I ask.
He shows me his palms.
I lie down on his leather couch and study the bones in my ankles, then ask him to take off his socks so I can compare them to his. They are identical. If we were in an ancient Greek tragedy, I would recognize his footprints by comparing them to my own.
“I often thought you were imaginary,” I say. “That she had made you up so fully that I ended up inserting you into my childhood memories.”
“I looked for you, too, you know,” he says.
“I suppose it wasn’t easy,” I say. “With no names or addresses.”
I forgot I do have a name, now.
I text Adrian. I found a fruit whose name I don’t know, I write. Forget about me.
Marc and I sleep in the same bed. He gives me his pyjamas and they fit me perfectly.
In the morning, the warnings have given way to a state of emergency. Entire neighbourhoods to the west are completely flooded, they say. Scientists are baffled. They’ve never seen anything like it.
He takes my hand. “Let’s go,” he says.
We look for you. We follow the lakes, trace the floods. We take Marc’s car as far as it will go and then we wade through the flooded areas in our wellies and, when our wellies fill up and the water reaches our waists, we swim.
We make it to the school. I remember it. You tried to enrol us there once, be a proper parent. Keep a proper flat, hold a proper job, keep food in the fridge. You fucked the geography teacher and didn’t last a year.
The school’s roof is an island now. We kick our way through the water and grab onto the ledge where we used to sit sometimes with our legs hanging down and pretend we were smoking our pens. We lie on the roof now, panting. Our clothes are soaked, our hair too. I look at Marc, his liquid features, his cheekbones that are just like mine. “It’s like we never left you,” I tell him. He looks at me and doesn’t say it, but we did. We did.
Then we glimpse you, walking on the water next to the figure of a man, the scales on his body shimmering in the afternoon light, antlers growing out of his head.
I finally understand how stupid I was. Were you ever even looking for Marc?
We call for you, and we can tell from the tension in your shoulders that you can hear us. You don’t look back, and neither does our father.
In the end, we let go of the roof and swim back to the shallows of the city, our bodies lithe in the water, the water soothing on our skin. Then we walk far, as far as we can.
We live in a house by the lake now. Does it matter which one? It’s the lake. Your lake.
We spend our time fishing with feathers that the lake offers up or with soft, coiling worms I find in the mud when I go looking for footprints that aren’t there. On cold mornings we build fires and tell each other stories about our parents, stories of our birth, things that happened and others that didn’t. We never talk about Marc’s children. We take tiny spoonfuls out of the mysterious jar Marc’s foster mother gave me; he doesn’t know the name of the fruit either. I watch him, the beautiful, familiar length of him, his flesh that is my flesh. We look like each other, but do we look like you? Some days I almost forget, think that we’re finally grown up, that we chose to live here, in this place by the lake. I take meandering walks along the shore. And I see it, sometimes, off in the distance, a welling up.