Freedom danced for us with bells on.

by Cassie

Mom/Me

When I got my two year old out of the shower this morning, her teeth were chattering with cold. Once I had her dressed, I wrapped her up in the big blue blanket. She let me hold her there for five minutes or so, not moving, not talking, just looking up at me with the thousand mile stare of a soul who’s still closer to wherever they were before than where they are here. She’s never so silent for very long, never so content to simply be with me – she moves like the sun on the sea, like dragonflies in August – and it was an odd and unexpected gift, the weight of her like a world in my arms, light like pearls, heavy like love.

There’s a picture of me that looks like the ghost of my still living mother. It’s dark, and there’s a fire, and I’m wearing a white dress. The lines of my body are a map of her terrain – the gentle hill-like slope of shoulder, the lush jungle of hip, the oblong glow of moon across the plain of my face – and I follow them, an intrepid explorer of familiar foreign lands. She used to lay in the bath for hours, my mom, sweating in that steamed up room with seven kids’ worth of laundry smelling up one corner, and I would always interrupt her at least once; I think it was because I had to make sure her head was still above the smoky water.

I watch the way I float now, how much more of the tub I take up, the melted butter spread of belly and thigh. The lapping at the soft fat folds, the unapologetic overripeness, a split plum in the palm of a summer-warmed hand. The sweet unfurling of hair, the way it sways in the underwater wind. An abandoned Venus at the bottom of the ocean, blooms cracking open the place where the ribs would lay, a skeletal staircase to the first floor of the heart. I lay here, expanding under one missing light bulb, the empty buzz of it skipping across my skin like a dying fly; this is an altar, this is a pyre.

In the family records my grandma kept, there’s a notation about a girl on fire in the fields. I think about her all the time. I wonder when the flames made the leap from the arid earth to her fertile flesh; I can see her run as her brother’s shout hangs helplessly in the air between them, I can describe the detail of that last snowflake ash settling on her skin. I think her sigh must have sounded like September, a timid candle lit up like a comet against the backdrop of October. I think, did it rain as she lay there, a black lash wet on her cheek? Is this the hot ache of a dying star?

Freedom danced for us with bells on, her breasts spilling from a corset laced with lies, her eyes bright with knowing. We looked away, down at our shoes, up at dirty old cracks in the ceiling, into our drinks; we left wet rings on the tables, wet spots in the dark places we went to forget the way her face was fire, to forget the way it burned on the backs of our eyelids, a velvet revolution we tried to press into submission between our bodies. I saw her behind the building after everyone had left, the collar of her coat buttoned up at her throat, her hair shining under the streetlight. She was sitting on the steps, breath collecting above her in the fog, and I guess I must have made a noise, because she turned toward me and winked.

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