content warning: mentions of blood and mild gore
Always near the end of summer, we watch the mist cross the fold of the sea, wrapped around the neck of the horizon. The town behind us quiet in the aftermath of the busy season, our ears still ringing with the sound of tourists trying to haggle the price of ice cream or beer or asking disgruntled locals to take photographs for them. We still hear the sound of their complaints as they skip and hop, pink and white, between patches of shade all the way down the beach until they can curl wet sand between their toes. The mist comes when all that’s left of the girls sucking peach stones and licking their wrists is the faint smell of suntan lotion, dabbed upon seemingly every surface around town the way leopards mark trees as they wind through the jungle. The mist comes as the sea peels back under the sharp moonlight and exposes the clumpy brown flesh underneath, the shells that cut feet and the seaweed that wraps around ankles and the small crabs that scurry towards cover, naked and cold as though they’ve had the shower curtain ripped away from them. Every summer. We stand on that beach. Waiting.
The night before there is a migration. It starts with a single howl. Then hundreds. The stray dogs that stalk the tight, white alleyways begging for scraps and the odd kind touch, mobilising. There was one that slept underneath a car outside our home one year. We called him Rufino. My father wouldn’t let us feed him for the first few months in the hopes he would leave on his own. He didn’t realise that my sister and I smuggled bones and gristly bits of meat to Rufino that our mother palmed us when he turned back to his newspaper. When the mist came Rufino took up the howl and joined the furry, wagging hoard as they flocked down the main road out of town and up into the barren hills that pierced the mist and overlooked us. Every year the dogs hide up there and survive eating rats and other small rodents or, when they begin to starve, the weakest of their group. You can see them at night sometimes, hundreds of yellow eyes blinking through the gloom. When Rufino returned, his belly was fat and sagging with pups. We still just called him Rufino. Papai was adamant we wouldn’t help birth the pups, but when we heard the cries of labour outside our window he rushed out with towels and bowls of water and milk.
You didn’t think I knew you were feeding him all that time? He said, swaddling a puppy in a Mickey Mouse towel.
Every year, the mist took my mother. Every year.
A mulher branca! A mulher branca! The white woman. That’s what the kids of the town shouted and the adults whispered as she passed when she first arrived. Thirty years later and she still heard it. It echoed down the lanes as she headed home with fresh vegetables for dinner. It lay heavy in the quiet when she entered the laundrette and our neighbours dispersed from rustling their feathers and bobbing their heads together.
They know I’m not like them, and that’s okay Franco. The mountains keep people. Just like the sun keeps people.
My mother’s face was a white iris, the soft mouth opening and closing around the words. She traced the scars on her arm with her hand. Her skin calcified white, in my eyes blanched and dyed by the mist and the snowdrifts that gathered around the mountains where she grew up. I had been suspended from school for bursting a boy’s nose. The blood and snot spraying from his lips as he shouted aberração. Freak. It’s the word he had just used to describe her. I liked that he thought I was the same as her. I wanted to be an aberração too.
My earliest memory is of sitting round the dinner table waiting for her to finish her meal. My sister and I already with clear plates, the food either eaten or squashed into pockets, us impatient and wanting to go play. My father hadn’t served himself anything, though he watched the small bites she took intensely. She was careful. She sliced her fish and sucked on it before chewing it then she swallowed it like it was a rock sticking to the sides of her throat. She looked up and gave us a sad smile as she glanced at the clock that ticked sadly onwards. She speared a small chunk of aubergine and looked at my father over it. I don’t know if time has added details and warped others, but in this memory of mine she gave the smallest shake of her head. I knew there was something strange about it, even then. When she put us to bed, I didn’t understand why she held the top of my head to her face, why she inhaled so deeply.
It’s always this memory that I suck on, this memory that I suck all the flavour out of. Instead of the rest.
I don’t know what happened after she kissed us goodnight in this memory, but I would guess she walked downstairs, skipped over the fourth step down that creaked, finished her cup of chá and allowed father to lead her down into the dark basement. He would have kissed the tears off her cheeks as he placed the heavy manacle around the delicate stem of her wrist. He would stifle his own as he fixed the muzzle over her mouth. He would have said goodnight then walked upstairs and drank bourbon until his eyes closed over the photographs he was holding and the record he was listening to ran finished and turned and turned until the morning light scratched at the window. This is the way I would find him in the years to come. He would go about his day, visiting my mother in the basement when he could.
My father worked in the fish market. He would wake up at 5am every morning, dress in one of his two pairs of ‘work’ jeans, grab his overalls and his packed lunch that mother made him and head out to be the earliest to bargain for the fish. After a long day selling tuna, cod, prawns, mussels and squid, he would pack up shop and head home. On Fridays he would pick her up a bunch of flowers. Sometimes he brought Diana and I hard candies. When he walked through the door he would kiss our mother then fight us off as we jumped him and tried to raid his pockets to find any treats he might have brought us. He would grab our small heads in his large hands and cover our noses with his stinking fingers stained rusty from fish guts. We would wriggle and fight like those fish once had. Then he would pull sweets out of his sleeves.
With all the flowers he bought her, my mother would cut a couple from each bunch, take them down to the basement and hang them upside down to dry. Father thought she planned to press them, and so began picking up second-hand books from a store in town. He would come back with books with yellow pages and covers curling up at their corners and their spines all broken. For your flowers, to keep them safe, he would say. But she would just smile and tell him they weren’t ready yet. They began to decorate the walls. Hundreds of bouquets hanging upside down, withered and dried, their colours darkened but still there, still clinging on to a little of their life
When my father died, I tried to keep up the tradition. Once a week I would bring home flowers and my mother would smile and press them to her nose and cut a couple off. She wouldn’t add them to her collection though. These, she pressed between the pages of those old books and stacked them high beside her bed. When my father died I was offered his place at the fish market. Some of his friends there said they would teach me the trade. I took it because I knew money would be tight. I hated it. I hated smelling like fish. I hated waking up so early. I hated the way the rest of the workers looked at me. I hated how much it made me miss him.
When father died it became my job to lock her in the basement.
The year he died, just before the dogs fled, Diana and I discussed what we were gonna do with her. He had explained it enough by then. Our father was always soft when mentioning it, but severe.
Just lock the locks and leave. Don’t go back until the morning.
Maria Ferreira said—
Don’t listen to any of the gossip. Your mother is perfectly fine. These boca moles—
It’s to stop her hurting herself.
It doesn’t matter Franco; your mother doesn’t want you kids worrying. When the time comes and it’s your turn, just lock the lock and leave until the next day. She would hate to have you there.
When the time came, I was 17 and Diana 15. She was still spotty and wearing too much eyeliner. Just before father died she had been grounded for missing school; our parents didn’t know the reason she was missing school was because she was smoking weed down at the beach with me and my friends. Diana didn’t tell them. She just took her punishment and demanded I got her beer whenever she needed it. I agreed, and as it turned out, she didn’t have to serve her whole sentence.
I said I would handle it. We had dinner. There were candles and wine and music and any tears that came were squashed at the corners of eyes and spread across the backs of hands like butter on bread. Diana kissed her. I led her down into the white room with all the dead flowers. Their smell only seemed to get stronger over time. I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t look at the manacle on the other side of the room. Franco, she said. Just leave me here.
She was blurry when I looked at her, no longer in focus, the wetness in my eyes turning her from something sharp and defined and real to a memory – the gist of what she should look like. I shuddered with tears.
No, I should—
Please. I don’t want you kids to have to do it. I can do it myself.
Franco please. She was crying. She looked so frail, like porcelain. Like if I didn’t agree she would crack and shatter. I hesitated.
I can do this. Please. She stood on tiptoes to kiss my face. She squeezed me tight and inhaled deeply as she pressed her face to my shoulder. She pushed me towards the stairs.
When I woke up she was gone. I went downstairs to check on her and the manacle was empty. It was still night outside, the moonlight and the cold breeze ushered in through the small window near the roof on one side of the basement. There was a tower of boxes underneath it. I woke up Diana and we went looking for her.
The cold breeze from the sea was channelled throughout the tight alleyways of the town and made the hair on our arms stand up. We called out for her and heard our voices bounce off the white walls and echo through streets. The mist lay across everything, the town filled with ghosts that traced the backs of our necks. We passed the small court where I used to play football and it was cold and empty, the nets taken away, leaving just the bare frames, the paint on the ground mostly scraped away. Silence. It was heavy and filled up my ears as though I was under water. It was broken by someone’s front door opening.
Franco? Are you looking for your mother?
Yes, Mr Pires. Have you seen her?
Yes, she just passed. She looked like she was heading to the beach. I was up at the window. I don’t sleep, you know? This old bladder, I-
Thank you, Mr Pires.
We headed to the beach, where our mother was kneeling on the sand, her hands clasped under her chin. It looked like she was praying.
Praying. That’s what she was doing. That’s what I told myself. Her bones pressing against her white skin, her body arched into a hook. The tide rolled up to brush her knees. The moon had turned her to marble. She barely moved in the cold night air, only her jaw, working away at something. Her dark hair covered her face, only to explode wildly around her as the wind blew. Blood smeared her mouth. Her hands dropped to her lap. There were small bites out of her fingers, the skin rugged and frayed and bleeding. The worst of the damage was on the outside of her thumbs and at her wrists, where the bone stuck through and the blood was thick as it dripped onto the sand.
The tears that fell quietly down my face were mirrored on Diana’s. I took off my coat and wrapped our mother in it.
Mãe? Diana said.
Mãe? I tried.
We need to get her up, Franco.
We hooked our arms underneath hers and pulled, lifting her to her feet. She just stared ahead, as though dreaming, seeing something we couldn’t. Covering her as best we could we made the slow ascent back through the town. At points she walked and at points we had to drag her. I stopped to put my socks on her feet so they wouldn’t rub raw. All around, the mist swallowed us up. I could feel it in my clothes, brushing my hair, kissing my neck. The sun was starting to rise. I was glad for the cover but we still saw a few figures standing at windows hiding quickly behind curtains as we passed. We were sweating and panting by the time we got home and sat her down on the couch. She didn’t say a word. She just stared ahead.
Diana helped her shower and brush her teeth, then we bandaged her hands up.
Franco? She blinked as I was wrapping them.
What happened? She looked around the room, then down at herself.
You-you were sleepwalking.
Yes, you—something—something bit you.
She just shook her head.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. She began to cry. We held her tight between us. She felt as though she was shrinking.
We decided it would be best if I stayed in the basement with her. At least just to see how the night went. She tried to refuse, of course, but she didn’t have much choice. I could have just locked the lock and made her wear the muzzle, left and went upstairs to lie awake until morning, but I wanted to make sure.
When the night came we said goodnight to Diana and she took my arm as we headed down into the basement. I was glad for the flowers, making the room a bit less grim. I locked the manacle around her wrist, careful of her bandages.
Leave it at that, Franco. Let’s just talk for a while.
You know I would never hurt you. I would never hurt you. Neither of you. You know that right?
I know Mãe. We know that. We can talk.
Have you been praying? She slid down the wall to sit on the floor.
Mãe. You know—
Yes I know. But you should still talk to Him, even if you don’t believe. Especially during these times. She hugged her knees into her chest.
Fine. I will. For you.
What do you pray for? I sat down against the opposite wall, careful not to disturb the flowers that hung upside down around me.
She thought about it for a moment. I didn’t expect her to answer.
I used to pray for myself. But now I pray for you. You and your sister.
We’re fine. We’re just worried about you.
She laughed but it didn’t reach her eyes. You’re right. You kids are doing fine. She paused. You shouldn’t ask people what they pray for Franco. That’s between them and their God.
My father used to tell me to talk to the canyon whenever I asked questions like that.
Where I lived. He said sometimes if you asked it a question it would answer. But it would keep your voice in its collection forever.
And did it?
I asked it a question once and it answered. I asked, “what will I be when I’m older?” It said “Older. Older. Older.” The answer running away from me into the dark.
I thought about her, standing there on a mountaintop, etched like a letter onto a blank page. I thought of her voice being carried down into that canyon and stored there in the ice, one gem amongst thousands. Her voice would be purple, like an amethyst. It would be displayed there, echoing quietly until a time the ice melted and set it free again.
It was the chain that woke me up. The sound of it rattling against the wall. I opened my eyes and she was pulling her wrist through the manacle, slippery with fresh blood, the wounds at her wrist opened back up.
Mãe? Stop. I stood and approached slowly.
She faced me. Her cheeks were gaunt, her eyes sunken in her head. It didn’t look like her. She slipped her wrist free. The skin scraped away, the blood pooling underneath her.
She headed towards the back window. I grabbed her by the arm and tried to pull her back towards the chain. She turned; her face twisted into something furious. She screamed. I recoiled from the unfamiliar sound. She twisted and pulled but I held on. She raked my face with her nails and I felt the skin open up. I held on. She grabbed me by both shoulders and ran me backwards. I tripped and felt us both go down. The back of my skull cracked against the floor. The last thing I saw before my vision went black was my mother standing over me.
It was Diana who woke me. The back of my head was wet and I had to peel it off of the floor. I didn’t understand the words Diana was saying. I didn’t know why I was there. Then it gradually came back to me. The sun was coming up. The cicadas had begun droning in the bushes outside.
It’s my fault, Diana.
It is. It’s my fault.
It’s nobody’s fault. Let’s go get her.
We ran down to the beach. I didn’t stop to be sick, just puked to the side while running and staggered on. It was getting hot already, the dust rising off the trail as our feet pelted down the white streets. I could feel something dripping down the back of my neck.
It was the small crowd we saw first – 5 or 6 of them standing in a semi-circle. Chirping. A woman was screaming so loudly we heard her before we even reached the beach. She had her phone in her hand. They stepped out of the way when we struggled through the warm sand. The woman kept screaming between glances at her phone. I realised she was videoing. Before I got the chance to say anything, I saw the body on the sand.
Our mother. Facing the sun. Its light a cruel microscope on what was left of her. The pool of blood surrounding her baked into the sand, the skin and meat stripped off her bones in rough pieces. Her arms. Parts of her legs. Her lips. Her mouth was filled with blood. Her mouth was filled with pieces of herself. The only comfort was that it didn’t look like her. For a moment there was the strange feeling of relief that this couldn’t be my mother. That this was a stranger’s body, half eaten and wasted by something inside. Then I fell to my knees and cradled her body.
It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.
Não Mãe. Deus Não.
I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry.
Kids, I don’t think you should—
I was on my knees holding her when the world went white then black.
When I woke up Diana was curled up on the bed at my feet. We were in hospital, my head was bandaged, my tongue was fat and heavy in my mouth. There was a tray of uneaten food next to me. The lights were giving me a headache so I sipped some water and closed my eyes. The tears slipped out and rolled slowly down my face.
Franco. Diana was on top of me crushing my ribs in an embrace. She began shuddering. I realised she was crying.
She’s dead, Franco. She’s dead.
What could we do but hold each other? It was the first time through it all I was truly scared. The world seemed a much bigger place as we lay in that bed, trying to keep the pieces of each other together. Desculpe. Desculpe. Desculpe. I whispered my apology over and over again. Diana didn’t answer.
We went home. We didn’t talk about it, we couldn’t. We ate dinner together and drank together and cried together. We didn’t go into the basement. We didn’t go out much. We didn’t speak to anyone in the town. We were all alone.
As I placed the flowers on her coffin and watched her descend into the dirt so far from the mountains where she was born, I thought about all those flowers hanging upside down in the basement. I wondered how long it would take for them to lose their colour, to drop their petals, to crumble into dust.
I thought about her voice in the canyon. Still echoing. if I could go there, maybe I could hear it once more, or hold it frozen in my hands. Maybe we don’t really die. Maybe places and things keep something of us. Maybe there’s pieces of us left when we go, still echoing. Maybe the mist was still out there too. Still echoing.
Niki Brennan is a writer and poet from Glasgow, Scotland. He is the first-prize winner of the Federation of Writers’ 2021 Vernal Equinox poetry competition. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Fiction Prize and his most recent publications have been in Gutter, Wrongdoing and 3 Moon Magazine. He holds an MLitt and a BA from the University of Strathclyde and you can find him on Twitter at @NikiBrennan_
photo by MohammadHosein Mohebbi (via unsplash)