When she can’t reach the shelf, she shakes her head. She is not shrinking with age. It’s that the world has collapsed around her. The forest, for example, keeps shrinking. When she first moved to the cottage, it nestled in a clearing that got just enough sun to grow chard. The trees marched off in all directions. A grass-grown track led miles to the nearest village and yet those miles were no impediment. She routinely made the trip for a beer or a jolly laugh with friends. Trunks abutted one another and branches joined overhead. In winter they were a tracery; in summer, a puzzle of green. At sunrise and sunset, when you might expect to see the sun’s hands reach horizontally between the trees, she saw none. That was what? 30 years ago? Now, sun at all hours. She could even grow tomatoes. The heat builds.
Reaching overhead, hand scrabbling in the dust, perhaps she’s looking for the black fox. Someone is looking for the fox. Her fox? In photos? As if her life depends on it. But what aspect of her life is in danger?
She putters uselessly in the yard, gathering dry twigs then putting them down again. She has no use for a fire that night, dines on peapods off the vine, cheese from goat’s milk, water from the well.
Sea mother no longer near the sea, though when the ground rolls beneath her, she still knows it’s time for a long sleep. She crawls into bed and opens the book. “Dress your toad in velvet and bells. Turn the cat into a dog, a greyhound into a headless four-year-old child. Buy a black rabbit named Sugar and Sack,” she reads, but nothing about a fox with a silver tail.
On the night of a full moon, her daughter shows up, hugs her. She wraps her arms around her, raps her fingers on the old shoulder blades, then pulls back and raps her fingers on the old breastbone. Is she checking to see if the chest is still hollow? Has it grown a heart?
The old lady reminds herself that these are the hands of love. At midnight the moonlight blues everything: eyes, skin, dress and undress, slip that her daughter bathes in, mist rising from the warm water in the basin, sponge she uses to sponge herself, smoke rising from a cigarillo, certainly the blue-black of the interior of her lungs. She has long black hair, streaked with silver, no longer young herself.
Where have you been?
What have you done?
With whom, to whom, and when?
To whom have you spoken?
Are you speaking to me now or am I speaking to you?
In the city, in a hotel above a blue-lit cabaret, theater neons on the corner, everyone wears platform sandals with ankle straps, bellbottoms, halter tops. When you run your finger along the windowsill, it comes up coated with greasy black soot.
In the morning she remembers that she never raised a daughter, and the fox is curled at the foot of her bed, nose under tail, back rising and falling with breath, smelling of spearmint and shit.
The next humid noon, her daughter shows up, and when she comes out from between the trees, the woman sighs. She’s been sitting in the doorway, mending not getting done, rabbit in her lap, both of them sniffing the torpid air for salt and tang of decaying seaweed although the ocean is far away. Perhaps these odors come from the past? That’s what she’s been pondering as she strokes the bunny hard from ear to tail—whether it is possible for the molecules that make up scent to travel through time. Why not? As the light from distant stars only appears to her eyes so many billions of years after its creation.
Into this light now (dappled, green and gold), her daughter steps, and then the black rabbit hops down to hide under the chair, the black goat pulls its tether rope tight as it goes around the side of the cabin, and the black cat slinks inside. The black fox has already gone from the corner of the yard and into the brush, shadowed tail streaking. Not the daughter of her dreams but the woman she’s become: six feet tall, blue-haired, be-ringed, weapon-carrying, sweat bleeding through her worn denim shirt, between her breasts and under her arms.
“I’ve come to take you someplace safe,” she says.
The woman fans herself with the shirt she has not been mending. “No,” she says. “There is no place safer.”
“No. There is no place safer.” The last time she saw her daughter (in person, not on the livid static of a dilapidated TV screen), there were eyerolls, screaming, ultimatums.
When she steps close, she doesn’t block the light. Instead, light streams through her, and heat, more heat. “I’ve come,” she says, and grabs her mother’s wrist.
Punk Hippolyta thinks about her mother:
Why, that one time, did she pretend she was dead?
Why, that one time, did she slap me?
Why did she tell me to bind my breasts? I’m not going to bind my breasts.
She has no dogs now, but why, when I was a child, did she own dogs that bit? Her favorite had two heads, a coat of black curls. I trained them too, corralled them by long leashes. They even bit her, but never me. I wouldn’t let them.
Otrera foretells her daughter’s future:
Someone named after you. No daughter.
Clubbing with your sisters, you will catch young Theseus’ eye. Do not marry him.
The chainmail will not protect you.
You, too, will need to overthrow a town.
Your river realm cannot last. Love the discord, sweet thunder, silver bow of moonshine.
Hippolyta grasps Otrera’s wrist.
The world is awash with light and sorrow.
When you were small….
[Interrupt. Palm up, face out. Stop. A great clattering of weaponry hanging from her belt.] No—you’re not going to tell me any sweet-as-sugar stories about how cute I used to be.
Hippolyta grasps Otrera’s wrist, yanks her up from the step (coffee mug and mending tumble to the ground), and drags her as far as the edge of the clearing. The black goat gnaws at its rope. The black cat leaps on Hippolyta’s back, and she yelps when its claws dig in. Otrera’s heels have pulled a path into the dust.
The world swims before both their eyes, awash with light and sorrow. Sun at its zenith. Sweat drips from them.
Hippolyta grasps Otrera’s wrist. Among the trees now, cool rises from the moss.
Otrera stops, puts her free hand against the bark of a white birch, and the bark reminds her.
“Mama,” Hippolyta says. “We need to leave before the next storm.”
In a film, we would see the dark lenticels line up and slide under Otrera’s skin, then weave their way to brain and heart.
“I need to go back for something.” She turns to the clearing, her home, her garden, her goat who has chewed her way free and is tearing leaves free from the pea vines. Eyes now used to green shade, Otrera sees house and goat floating in a sea of gold.
In her cabin, Otrera grabs ointments for flying, unguents for poison ivy, bat’s blood in a crystal vial, metal shavings from dinner bell and school bell, her Shabbat candlesticks (not used for years but you never know….), honey and plum, beeswax candles, notebooks and spellbooks, her favorite chair shrunk small, a dollhouse, and a present for her daughter: a veritable Swiss army knife of a corset.
Captured. Trapped by love for this thing. This daughter. When she thinks of her as a baby, clutching a stuffed dog, she can’t catch her breath.
Before settling into her homey forest life, she’d thought she might wear the corset herself. She’d traded whalebones for a stretchy, shiny spandex; attached ribbons, a spork, a water bottle, a roll of toilet paper, a package of tampons to the d-rings for easy access; painted it all something shimmering.
Into the open mouth of a backpack it goes now, and then she opens that mouth wider, cluck-clucks, and the animals come running, hopping, gamboling, flapping: bunny, chicken, goat, toad, black fox. Into the bag, they jump, and she closes it tight before heaving it onto her shoulders. She takes one last look around the now-bare room.
Outside, the light is blinding. Daughter, where are you?
Here, deep in the forest, where the young trees grow close together and the brambles clutch their trunks, there is no path, and so Hippolyta leads her mother through a stream. Hand in hand, they walk ever up, while the stream rushes around their feet, around rocks, down toward the sea.
The drone tracking them picks up their body heat, red dots among the cooler trees and icy tributaries. And then they disappear.
At the base of a waterfall, they climb up the rocky bank. Otrera turns back to face the play and splash of water. She rings school bell, sets out spellbook, lights the candles in their carved candlesticks. The trees seem to pull closer around them, and the air cools, infused with spearmint. Rainbows form above the torrent. After a few minutes, daughter and mother continue, trotting now through a forest free of undergrowth, the ground pillowed and blanketed with moss.
It’s midnight by the time they reach the top of the mountain. Moonlight silvers the treetops below them and, in the far distance, the river delta spreads into the sea. Every creek and stream glimmers. Beneath their haunches, the rock is still warm. The great brushes of their white tails curl around their legs. Their white noses twitch in the night air.
Maya Sonenberg’s story collection Bad Mothers, Bad Daughters is the recipient of the 2021 Sullivan Prize in short fiction. Previous books and chapbooks include Cartographies, Voices from the Blue Hotel, 26 Abductions, and After the Death of Shostakovich Père. Other writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, Electric Literature, The Collagist, and DIAGRAM. She teaches at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Ellen Santasiero lives, writes, and makes art in central Oregon. Her essays, memoirs, and interviews have appeared in Northwest Review, Marlboro Review, The Sun, Oregon Humanities, High Desert Journal, The Stay Project, Going Green, an anthology from the University of Oklahoma Press, and in “Dialogical,” a writing and art exhibit curated by Portland State University. She teaches at Oregon State University-Cascades.