I came home from university after about two years away and found Mother in the chicken coop. She was bent over so keenly, the lower half of her body seemed severed from her waist. I tapped her back and asked what her problem was. She talked about her hen that had developed a habit of killing its chicks. There was the time it killed three out of the ten chicks that hatched. Then six hatched and it killed them all immediately. A week ago, it killed four out of thirteen chicks at first. Mother had danced a little, feeling hopeful. Then she went to refill the water trays and all around the hen were its remaining nine chicks, trampled and pecked to death.
“Why didn’t you just eat it after the first time?”
That’s when she looked up at me, perhaps just realising that she hadn’t seen me in two years. Her gaze lingered on my stomach, so I sucked it in and relaxed my shoulders. She’s always hated my posture—how I hunch my shoulders when I lean forward to watch TV. She took to rapping at my scapula every time she caught me doing it and I started leaning too far back, my hands on my waist, to save myself the pain. But that only made her angrier. She said it made me look like a pregnant girl embarrassing her mother.
“I wouldn’t have any chickens left if I killed them every time they killed their chicks.”
“Why do you keep giving it eggs to hatch then?”
“What use is a hen if she isn’t hatching eggs?”
She clicked her tongue so hard, she must have bit it.
“You do it all the time. You let them lay eggs and give it to another hen to hatch.”
“How would you know what I do all the time?”
The hen scurried past us. A cock immediately spotted it and started chasing. I watched them awhile, wondering what the point of this elaborate chase was.
“How long? How long till you kill it?”
“Maybe I’ll see if there’s some medication I can give her so she doesn’t eat her chicks anymore.”
“Mother, it’s just a hen. Why won’t you kill it?”
She sighed. An exaggerated, condescending sigh.
“You know nothing of motherhood.”
But I suspect that we all—Mother, her hen and I—knew the same thing: sometimes survival demanded that you trample those that would look to you for life.
She asked if I had eaten. I hadn’t. She told me there were leftovers in the fridge and I went inside to warm them. She followed me and we sat down at the dining table. She watched while I ate and I tried not to gag.
“Have you eaten? Do you want to eat with me?”
She shook her head, used her thumb to wipe some soup off my chin.
“You still eat like you’re sick? Look at your neck, look at your clavicle! You’re making people think I’m a bad mother.”
I put more food onto my plate.
▴ ▴ ▴
My last night at home before I started university, Mother had sat at the edge of my bed, watching me pack. She shook her head and sucked her teeth as I put sleeveless top after sleeveless top into my suitcase. It was a difficult moment to balance. On one hand, it was a demonstration of my soon-to-come independence. I wanted her to know that she would no longer be able to control what I wore. But I still wanted her approval and faith. For her to believe that I was going to work hard; that I wouldn’t get pregnant and drop out of school or, worse yet, force her into taking care of my baby so I could go back to school smelling like breast milk. So while I mostly ignored her, I made it a point to also showcase the baggy trousers and plain T-shirts I packed.
“Do you think it’s going to matter to that boy looking at you in your tight shirts that you were wearing baggy trousers yesterday?” she asked after a strung-out silence.
I wanted to roll my eyes, but instead, I stood up straight and looked her in the eye.
“When you’re seated in his bed and you’ve tempted him and he wants sex no matter what. Do you think a day’s worth of decent clothing will matter?”
I looked away.
“What will you expect from me when it happens?”
“I’m sorry, when?”
“No mother should have to nurse a violated child.”
She walked to the door but stopped abruptly, almost as if she had forgotten something. I held my breath, hoping for an apology.
“I love you. You know that. Now come and eat before your food gets cold.”
We ate in silence until she brought out my going-away cake, decorated with icing and all. She stopped baking regularly when I was thirteen because she simply didn’t enjoy it. She said it didn’t make sense for her to suffer through something I was old enough to do myself. Seeing the effort she put into the cake cheered me up a bit. Quintessential Mother—stacking unkindness and affection right atop each other.
We ate cake and talked about my various first days of school. On my first day of nursery school, she was ten minutes late in picking me up. I panicked, worrying I had been abandoned. By the time she got there, I was hunched under a table in my class, shaking and retching into my school bag. That night she baked me a cake, so I’d take a slice to school the next day but also have a bigger portion waiting for me at home—a sweet reminder that she, like the cake, would always be there when I needed it. My first day of primary school, I came home without my sweater and a missing shoe. She gave me a warm bath and let me sleep in her bed but denied me my afternoon snack for a week. My first day of high school, I forgot my keys in her bag after she helped me get settled in my dormitory. I called her the next day but she didn’t send them for a week. She said I needed to learn to pay attention. When they finally came, she had smuggled some chocolates and crisps into a packet of sanitary pads.
The night before I left for university, we laughed and cried and I didn’t verbalise a thought that was just occurring to me. Was it ever going to be possible to untangle unkindness from her love for me? Before she left for her bedroom, she hugged me for what felt like a really long time.
“You see, I love you. But those clothes? That’s how women get raped.”
Afterward I stood there, shoving fistfuls of cake into my mouth until I couldn’t feel my teeth.
▴ ▴ ▴
I met Elliot, a statistics major, in my second semester of university. He moved into my building at the time, in the middle of the night. To get someone to let him in, he threw pebbles at the window most accessible from the gate, which happened to be mine. I left him my copy of the key when I let him in, instructing him to return it as soon as he got his. The following day, a shirtless Elliot returned my key with a thank you card. In the thank you card, he’d drawn a Venn diagram illustrating “the intersection of having a stranger you’d woken up in the middle of the night trust you with their keys and having that neighbour be a beautiful woman.” I stared at the card, suddenly realising how reckless I’d been in opening the gate for a random man in the dead of night. Mother says the only good men are dead and buried; that even the ones in the mortuary have bastard children forced to claim fathers that never once fed them.
“I’m trying to say thank you. And you’re beautiful,” he repeated, his voice pitchy and cracking.
I jerked my head up, a little surprised. Looking at his shirtless chest, I wondered what Mother would say about a man showing up shirtless at the house of a woman he’d just met. He’s probably a man whore who thinks women should want to sleep with him just by looking at him. I gestured at his upper body with the card, unsure of how to interpret the scene before me.
“Sorry, I heard someone opening the gate and I realised I hadn’t returned your key so I just ran over here,” he said, awkwardly crossing his arms across his chest.
It occurred to me that his presentation wasn’t necessarily sexual arrogance, that it could be sweet awkwardness. Still unsure on how to respond to either, I did what Mother would want me to do. I ripped up the card and threw it in his face.
“I’m not a mathematics person but even I know this is a stupidly pedestrian way to use a Venn diagram.”
Mother says, “Always let these men know that you have teeth.”
If I put him off, it didn’t show. He sent an apology written in the form of C++ code, a scatterplot showing the correlation between his intentions with the card versus the outcome (no correlation), a hand-written note under my door: You and I together would be as indivisible as prime numbers. On the third day, I showed up at his door giddy, but intending nonetheless, to ask him to stop. He was shirtless when he opened the door and it threw me off.
“Are you always shirtless?” I asked, shaking my head.
“Only when I’m around you,” he joked, half smiling.
It was the way his lips curved when he tried not to smile, just his lower incisors showing. How he scratched his ear as he looked down, anxious that his good-naturedness wouldn’t translate. It was his resoluteness about who he was. It did things to me. It made my stomach flip. It made my lips quiver.
“If I kiss you, do you promise to stop with the statistics stuff?”
There was a moment when we were kissing. I paused to catch my breath and I noticed a tiny birthmark on his neck, right below his chin. I thought: I could choke him. I could just press on his birthmark until he couldn’t breathe. So I kissed him some more.
I am my mother’s child—of course I have teeth, I just didn’t want to bite.
▴ ▴ ▴
I don’t know how I got pregnant. Maybe a condom broke. Maybe a morning-after pill didn’t work. I woke up from a nap one afternoon, six months into our relationship, with the unsettling realisation that my period was two weeks late. I ran crying, all the way to Elliot’s house and he bought me a pregnancy test.
We sat on the bathroom floor while we waited and when it turned out positive, we both burst out crying. Later in his kitchen, as he made me tea, I told him I was getting rid of it. When he hugged me, I stroked his birthmark with my left hand, wondering how quickly he would gasp for air if I actually choked him.
Three days later, Elliot sat on my bed while I looked through my closet, trying to pick an appropriate outfit. He agreed with every outfit choice, declaring me assertive in each one. In the end, I chose a black T-shirt, black jeans, and black low-heeled boots. He described this choice as demure; that we couldn’t be accused of not taking this seriously. I rolled my eyes when he said we, at his implication that he and I were experiencing this moment in the exact same way. I put on a reddish-mustard headband just before we left.
“Colour makes me happy,” I said cheerfully.
“Shouldn’t you carry a sweater? It might get chilly after, you know?”
“Because I’m scaling a mountain?” I mocked even though I knew he meant well. I needed to claim this experience for myself; to wring empty his gentle, well-intentioned hands of any claim he had staked.
“I just want you to be comfortable,” he said, half-smiling, and reached for my hand.
“And I needed you to be infertile,” I croaked, slapping his hand away.
He winced and took a step back. We stood, staring at each other until I mouthed, “I’m sorry,” and he shook his head and mouthed, “I understand.” Right before we left, he said he needed to confirm his door was locked but when he caught up to me, he was carrying a hoodie for himself and a black leather jacket for me.
“I figured it goes with your look,” he said, holding out the jacket for me.
I thanked him but didn’t take the jacket. In that moment, I felt for him something I only feel for my mother—anger so visceral and gratitude so overwhelming, all at the same time, whirling and swelling inside of me, making me nauseous.
It was a relief to find out that the abortion pill was the best option at that stage of the pregnancy. I took a deep breath but caught it in my chest, afraid Elliot would realise that my relief was me planning to curtail his involvement. When the doctor asked if I was sure I wanted an abortion, it was Elliot who explained that we were university students in no position to take care of a baby. The doctor, ethically bound to not take his word, looked to me to confirm but my heart was in my mouth and I could only nod. When she advised that I have someone take care of me for the next few days, Elliot nodded a little too eagerly, squeezing my hand. There was his goodness again, a tenderness I couldn’t trust. I thought about Mother warning me against showing up at her house half dead from an abortion some man had coerced me into having. With the slight tremor of Elliot’s hand in mine, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was some subtle trickery. Maybe his support was a performance, another act of his manipulation—some way to ease the guilt of gaming me into having my insides flushed. I wanted to go home. At least with Mother, I always knew what to expect.
Later in a cab, a container of pills in one hand and Elliot’s sweating palms in another, I did another thing Mother would want me to do. I picked a fight.
“Would you have let me do this if you wanted a child?”
He must have realised I wasn’t asking in good faith because he was quiet for a while. Then he shook his head, said his needs were obviously irrelevant.
“So you’re relieved that I have to go through something so terrible?”
“Is this your fucked up way of saying that you changed your mind?” he asked, turning away, his eyes welling up.
Of course I didn’t want to be pregnant and I should have been grateful for him, but I just wanted to shake him. To shake and shake until something, anything, fell out of his mouth.
▴ ▴ ▴
I was lying on my bed in the evening, trying to determine what would be the best time to tell my mother I was pregnant when she walked into my room. I sat up to create space for her to sit.
“Did you think you would never come back? What do I keep saying? East or west home is what?”
She was teasing me. I expected to be yelled at or to be slapped a few times. Instead, she just sat there, massaging my feet asking me about school. Had I liked taking care of myself? Had I enjoyed my “freedom”? Aren’t campus boys the worst? I hated it. I wanted her to be angry and broken. I had made such a point of staying away but she still had won. Here I was, pregnant and needing my mother to take care of me. I started sobbing.
“Did you even care that I was away?”
“I knew you’d come back.”
I jumped up from the bed, screaming.
“Yes, but were you worried?”
She stood, silent but swallowing really hard. Mother has always been obstinate in her refusal to be vulnerable with me. Every time something moved her nearly to tears, she just kept swallowing—a croaky, strangled attempt at peristalsis so seemingly painful, I couldn’t look.
When I was seven, my class was asked to write about our favourite person and I wrote about her because she baked me cakes and had a superhuman ability to know when I was having a bad day in school and in need of extra snacks. The teacher said it was the sweetest thing ever and Mother smiled, even teared up when she read it. I sat on the floor by her feet, looking up at her as she read and made it a point to commit her happy face to memory. This way, I would always have a scale to gauge her feelings on. When she finished, she pinched my cheeks playfully and asked if I liked her only for the things she did for me. I had followed her around the rest of that evening needing, but not knowing how, to ask what she meant exactly. I didn’t yet understand that I could love people, especially her, just for who they were, even if they didn’t do anything for me.
When I was thirteen, we watched a news article about a high school teacher who’d been accused of assaulting seven of his students. The news only broke out because one of the student’s parents discovered he’d been texting one of the girls during the holiday to demand that they have an abortion. She sat on her legs, eyes transfixed on the TV, cursing under her breath. One of the girls was narrating how she’d gone to his office to get emergency sanitary pads as she’d started her period in the middle of the school day.
“Don’t they know not to trust men with things like this!” she yelled at the TV, her voice cracking towards the end.
“Maybe they were being misused?” I said even though I knew she didn’t require an answer from me.
“People don’t misuse pads. You’ll know when you start your period.” She turned to face me. “You haven’t started your period, right?”
I shook my head. She sighed, relieved but her voice broke again when she added, “Please tell me when you do.”
And then she sat there taking deep breaths and swallowing until it looked so physically painful, I had to go get her a glass of water. She was cursing loudly when I got back and in an attempt to lighten things up, I asked her if this must put things in perspective: that as much trouble as she said I caused her, I’d never done something egregious enough to make her curse in my presence. She froze for a while, and then she was yelling:
“How do you not get it? How do you not see yourself in these girls?”
Watching this same reaction so many years later, I thought that maybe if I could just get her to cry in my presence, our relationship would be better off for it. I lay my head on her chest and whispered, “Do you have any idea how much it would have meant to show that you cared at any point in the last twenty years?”
She pushed me off of her.
“You must know how hurtful that is. That you go around acting like you’re uncared for despite everything I do for you?”
She left the room to go make supper before I could respond.
The first semester of my second year of university, I noticed this guy behind me three mornings in a row. I knew it was more likely that he had class at the same time as me in the same area of school but to be on the safe side, I started taking different routes to class. I thought I had lost him until I came back from class one afternoon and he was waiting outside my gate. He said he’d missed me these last couple of days; that he just wanted to check in; that surely, I could give him my number so he didn’t have to try so hard to reach me. I gave him my number but I moved to a different building two weeks later and blocked him. The day I moved houses, I called Mother to say I’d be coming home for a while but she started telling me about a primary school classmate, who’d been missing for a while, as soon as she picked up.
“…the last time anyone saw her, she was wearing a short skirt, sashaying to that useless boy’s house. She’s probably murdered, her bloodied corpse lying dead at the bottom of a seasonal river.”
I kept swallowing hard, determined not to cry.
“Do you see now what I keep saying about your clothes?”
I watched an ant trying to roll a relatively large grain of sugar off a dead ant. I had decided against coming home long before I hung up.
In the months that followed, our conversations wilted down to rhetorical texts and thirty-second phone calls that didn’t—couldn’t—go beyond the obligatory, “I’m fine, how are you?” Until one day she surprised me by texting:
“I get that you’re a young woman trying to find her place in the world and you’re thinking, no matter how misguided, that you need some space from me. Just remember that I always will be, for better or worse, who you could be; that I’ll always be your home. Let me know if you need anything beyond rent and pocket money that you barely show gratitude for anyway.”
▴ ▴ ▴
The morning after my return home, I found my mother in the dining room decorating my welcome home cake. When she sensed me behind her, she stepped aside so I could get a better view of the cake.
“Red velvet cake,” I said, nodding my head in approval.
“Yeah. I was craving it.”
Craving. How appropriate. I started laughing and she rolled her eyes at me.
“It’s sort of funny because I’m pregnant.”
“Mother, I’m sorry I’m pregnant.”
I didn’t know what to say so I just shook my head. We stood in silence until she eventually declared she was going to the market to get groceries, seeing as she was now burdened with feeding three people.
I knew I should have at least washed the dishes if I had any hope of alleviating her mood when she came back home in the evening but I sunk to the floor and drifted off to sleep instead. I awoke to yelling about how shameless I was to not have the presence of mind to clean up or put the cake that I didn’t even deserve in the fridge. On the second day, she left any room I walked into. The third morning, I got off a phone call with Elliot and there she was, standing over me, asking what my deadbeat boyfriend was doing in the way of support. He wanted to come see me, to introduce himself to my mother; make it clear that he wasn’t the type of man to slink away in the aftermath of something like this. I was annoyed at this need of his to be perceived as good. Because then it fell on me to be the bad guy, to explain to him that obviously this wasn’t the time to meet my mother. He said he understood that it would be uncomfortable, that he wanted to be there for me regardless, so I started crying. I said I hated that he was putting me in this position, that I loved him but if he showed up at my home I would deny him so vehemently, apostle Peter would shake in his grave.
Still in my room, Mother was saying, “So you picked a boy that makes you cry when you’re pregnant?
I nodded. I figured, if she thought I had learnt my lesson, her anger would begin to thaw.
“Is this why you came home?”
Sniffling, I nodded again, determined to look as pitiful as possible. Because maybe then, she’d be nice to me.
I cried all through supper that evening and when she got up to go to her room, I started wailing. She spun around.
“How dare you? To sit in my chair and eat my food, and cry like you’re the one who’s been wounded.”
Except I had been wounded, often and severely in the last twenty years.
“You ignore me for the better part of two years, and then you come home pregnant and expect me to just take care of you. You haven’t even washed a single dish in the three days you’ve been here but now you’re crying? You’re an adult, why do you still expect servitude from your mother?”
After she stormed off, I stood in that dining room, shoving cake into my mouth until I threw up.
On the fourth day, I slaughtered her beloved hen to make her favourite chicken stew. I knelt on its wings, its neck in my hands, noise-cancelling headphones over my ears to drown out its cackling. It was a messy job. My knife wasn’t sharp enough so what should have been a swift motion became a back and forth process, jagged cuts on bloody skin. I let up when the head finally fell off and the chicken took off, flapping around the backyard, a trail of red on green grass. When it finally fell, I held it for a while, its corpse still warm against my chest. Then I marched into the kitchen, threw it into a basin of hot water and began the defeathering process.
Mother must have noticed it was missing when she went to check on her chickens in the evening, but she didn’t say a word. We ate in silence—Mother chewing for long stretches of time before swallowing, watching me move pieces of chicken around my plate. Sure, I was sick to my stomach with guilt but also, I had already taken the abortion pill and I was starting to feel nauseous.
“Do me a favour, the next time you kill my chicken to get my attention, respect me enough not to waste it.”
And then she laughed—a laugh so loud and sprawling it got me too. So for three minutes, we sat there laughing until I reached across the table and grabbed her hands, confessing my abortion was underway. She hurried over, sat beside me, and put my head on her lap. We stayed that way for a while, me apologising and she massaging my scalp, telling me that it was perfectly alright.
“Can I share a complicated thought with you?”
“You’re my favourite person in the world, but if I had this option with you, I wouldn’t have hesitated.”
I was so grief stricken, I threw up. Yet lying on her lap, the pressure from her fingers soft and comforting on my scalp, blood and vomit trickling down my thighs, how could I not understand?