The first time your mother swallows you whole you don’t really see it coming. It’s an autumn afternoon and you’ve returned from school, from the games, from the company of girls and boys, unsuspecting. You have heard the rumors, of course. Children who one day play by your side and the next one, they are gone. Adults who shuffle through the world like newborns, eyes empty, hungry, walking unsteady.
Still, you didn’t think it would happen to you.
Before she devours you, Mother stares at you with impenetrable eyes. Impenetrable because you haven’t yet mastered the skill of reading your mother’s face.
“You are not ready to be born yet,” Mother tells you. “So I will keep you here, in my mouth, until the time comes.”
The thing is, you’ve already been born once, twelve years ago. You are sure of it, even if you don’t quite remember. You try to tell this to Mother, but her mouth encompasses you fully and from all sides. The skin surrounding your curled body is sticky, warm and insulated. Your words choke inside your mother’s throat, they slide down her gullet, a place you don’t want to go. So you clutch tightly at the meaty bulges of your mother’s tonsils and pray for the time of your second birth to come fast, like waking from a dream.
When your mother spits you out at last, your anatomy has changed. Your bones frame your body in different angles. Breasts bulge from your chest and warmth runs between your legs in rivulets. The clothes she swallowed you with were digested a long time ago.
Your mother appraises you as you stumble to your feet, learning how to walk all over again.
“See, this is what I was afraid of,” she says, pointing at your unfolding body. She has lost weight since you saw her last and fine lines have burrowed their way onto the surface of her skin. Her voice rings different on the outside: clear, less guttural, a lullaby no more. “I’ve managed to keep you safe a while longer. Now you are on your own.”
You learn to walk again, put your feet next to one another and extend them into a different gait. People notice you, in different ways, and sometimes you notice them back. Your voice is not lilting anymore; it has the warm resonant quality of a woman. It startles you and yet you quickly learn to cloak your words in dulcet tones.
So you pick up your life again, right where you left it. You study and you work, you call your old friends trying to fill in the gaps, learn the new rules of the game. Some of them agree to meet you, are even teary to hear your voice, no matter how altered. Others don’t have the time for someone they left behind long ago. Still others are just gone, vanished. You don’t need to ask where: it’s an instinct, a feeling that if you walk down the brick-ringed alleyway to where their house used to be, you’ll catch a glimpse of them, squirming inside a bag of veiny skin, an extension of a parent’s neck.
You prefer not to.
Until one day a man finds you. You meet him at work and he offers to help you. He is doe-eyed and tender but the thing you notice first is the smell. It is a damp, enclosed scent that tells you he is just like you, a child born twice. How long ago, you don’t ask. You know the weight of this memory, it still presses down on your bones. He is kind and stoic and that is what you need. You move in with him, into your own apartment that smells of lilies and things untouched.
After a while you see changes in your body, your belly, your breasts. Your insides separate to make room for something new to grow and thrive. You should be happy, but all you are is petrified. The stale smell of a wet cocoon surrounds you. You plant more lilies in the balcony, fill the vases in the house with fresh peonies and hide sampaguitas under your pillow. Yet the smell eventually reaches him, and he shivers and looks at you like he doesn’t recognize you anymore. Like your body is a trap, he flinches as your jaws open and close, backs away into another room and locks the door shut.
You press at your belly—though it’s still too early—with hate and indignation. It’s not full yet, not ready, but it will be. Your jaws unclench just a tad, tendon and sinew become a little more malleable, preparing. The next morning he is gone. You sit at the kitchen table shedding tears like the peonies shed their heart-shaped petals. An urge grasps at you, a longing for your mother’s warm interior.
You run to her.
Her house is an old brownstone in a decayed part of the town. Nobody really goes there anymore. Not ever since you left. The smell still lingers but now the pungency has turned a little sweeter, the dampness warm and comforting. You are home.
There is a moment where you stop before you walk up the stairs. Soon it will be too late. The unbearable pressure of being part of someone else’s body surfaces from your memories and scrapes at your mind. You shiver but go inside.
You find Mother slicing the flesh of apples and melons and humming to herself. She takes one look at you and she knows.
“What are you doing here, girl?” she asks. “I thought you’ve built a life for yourself.” There is bitterness in her voice, a distant sadness.
You hesitate, not knowing if you are welcome, but soon you collapse on the faded upholstery of a living room chair. It was hard enough to come here, a desperate move. You might as well admit it.
“I want back in,” you say. “This world. I don’t understand it.”
She smiles. Doesn’t say a word more. She just opens her arms and mouth and takes you in, you and your unborn child.
Her interior smells like rotting fish. You dare not ask Mother what her meals consisted of all this time. The image of a pelican springs to mind. You keep your nose closed and you breathe through the mouth for the entirety of her pregnancy and yours.
Your belly keeps growing inside your mother, expanding. A live matryoshka doll trudging around an empty house. Your mother is not as young as she used to be. The skin of her jowls and neck becomes baggy and slack. She does her best to conceal it. She leaves the house clad in scarves, turtlenecks, and coats with high collars. You feel the pressure of the fabric at the surface of her skin, it stifles you.
As your body pushes at your mother’s esophagus, your baby’s feet thrust against the tip of your belly. You rest your hands softly on the distended skin and for the first time a seed burrows inside your heart. The beatings synchronized, three hearts as one. You are more.
You croon your baby to sleep, your jaws flexible, your mouth limitless.
This time you can’t wait to be born, so you can kiss your baby’s cheeks, caress its velvety skin, and hear its gurgling laughter. And also, breathe.
A sharp pain makes you writhe and punch against the walls of flesh that surround you. Your mother moans. You moan too.
“Get me out!” you scream. “Get it out!”
The birth is not easy. It leaves you curled on the carpet in a puddle of blood and lymph. Your child, a baby girl, is nestled in your mother’s shaky arms, clutching tight at the folds of her skin.
“I hope your jaws are strong, daughter,” she says, as your baby screams and flails.
Your insides churn at her words. You take the baby, press her tightly against your chest, and kiss her little head. This tiny creature is your strength now, and in turn you will make her stronger than you, smarter.
“I will never do that,” you say. Your voice quivers, weak but resolute. “I won’t hide the world from her.”
Your mother shakes her head. Her cheeks wobble to the movement. “We’ll see about that.”
Your daughter grows in a split second, it seems. She slides through your life as if it were paved with ice. All the while a great need burns inside you, a little voice in your head. Open your mouth, welcome her. But you don’t. Even though your ligaments feel sticky and soft like quicksand and there’s so much welcoming space in the cavity of your mouth and even more in your throat.
Every time you open up your lips and call to her (be careful, don’t run so fast, don’t play so hard, don’t let the other kids push you around), the need returns, more pressing than ever. Yet, you don’t do it. Instead you fight with her, you try to stifle that voice in the vibrato of your screams.
She doesn’t see it.
She looks at you hurt and she slowly drifts away. Good, you think, she is safer that way.
What your mother never told you is that she was afraid to lose you. So she kept you in the safest place she knew, inside her own body. Was she wrong? Would it change something if she hadn’t? Even now, after all these years, the tug is still there. The need to walk up the mossy stairs of the brownstone, open the door, and curl like a baby inside silky wet flesh.
Your daughter is grown now and she knows a sea of things more than you. She ambles through the world with an ease you never had. Until one day she has to leave you, and you, of course, you let her. Her school is taking her miles away, a distance not even your ever-expanding muscles could cover. You say goodbye and I love you. Not in so many words. You stand behind her as she packs her things and glance out to the endless road stretching up ahead, restless, keeping to yourself. Her tears fall on her burnt copper suitcase. You reach for her. As if she knows, she turns and takes your hand. Then you see it in her eyes, in the flash of a second: understanding.
You let her kiss you softly on your supple cheeks. They quiver and sigh to the touch but you pat them with your hands to be quiet, one last time.
“Thank you, Mom.” She smiles. Could she know what you did for her? What you didn’t? It doesn’t matter now. She is free.
All alone in your half-lit apartment you feel the urge to return to your mother. But you don’t go.
Instead she comes to you. One day you smell the familiar scent of your old home and open the door. She is standing right there, at your doorstep, her skin cracked and loosened but still retaining the ability to permute and stretch.
You let her in. You sit at the kitchen table and pour her tea. She hugs her cup with her scaly-old fingers and glances at you.
“Well,” she says, gesturing at your skin settled neatly on your face and your bulging clavicles. “You did it after all.”
“I did.” You nod. Dampness gathers at the corners of your eyes.
Your mother shifts in her place. Looks down at her lap, and then looks up again. “I’ve been so lonely without you,” she mumbles at last. “So very lonely.”
“Me too,” you say. Your voice softens. Admitting this, especially to your mother, feels easier than you thought it would.
“I don’t suppose you would …”
Her voice trails off, but you know what she means to say. Your nose catches a whiff of intimate humidity. Your eyes are trained to look for the shifting of skin and sinew on someone’s face.
For a moment there is a pull in your chest, a hurtful longing for past ways. Then a pause. This is not you, not anymore. Your cheeks are becoming more solid as time passes.
You exhale a long-held breath and the air changes. An almost forgotten scent wafts inside the room: lilies and peonies and sampaguitas. You haven’t bought flowers in twenty years. Yet the smell has always been here, waiting underneath for when you’d be ready, once the dampness subsided.
You look at your mother with clear eyes. At the quivering of her lips, the deep lines of her forehead. She is not so young anymore and not as headstrong. She wants to be close to you but doesn’t know how. You take her hand in yours, but you stay where you are.