My heart closed for that half second while my mother’s eyes were white and her arms were thrown up in the air. I lost track of her glass of wine. Then she landed on the broken table and slid to the side. Glass broke. Everything rushed.
“This is what happens,” she said. She wiped at the red wine with her shirt and with the tablecloth. “This is how someone becomes an atheist.” She was ruining the tablecloth and her shirt and she was grinning. Her front was dark with the wine. I ran to the sink and got paper towels out from underneath.
“Your shirt is filthy,” my mom’s friend Ryan said. “I advise you to take it off immediately.” Everyone laughed. “There they are!” Ryan said. I pulled some paper towels off the roll and pushed through the group of them, all crowded around my mom.
My mother looked up from the floor and saw me. She pulled her shirt back down.
They forget I’m here sometimes.
“Oops,” someone said to my mother. Now they were quiet. “Isn’t it past your bedtime?” someone else said to me.
It wasn’t past my bedtime at all, but rules change depending on the circumstances. My mother stood up and took me by the arm. She walked me to the kitchen door and she gave me a kiss on the ear.
“Get lost, kiddo,” she said. “Grown-up time.”
“Make sure it doesn’t stain,” I said, and she nodded. “The floor too,” I said.
I ran back to my room. I turned my light out and climbed under the comforter. I wrapped myself tight. After a few minutes I could hear the front door open and then close. They were going somewhere else.
It wasn’t until a minute later, when my bedroom door opened a crack, that I realized my mother hadn’t gone with them. I kept my eyes closed and breathed slowly, making my chest raise and lower. Raise and lower.
“Are you asleep?” she whispered. I made my eyelids flicker, and pretended I was dreaming.
In the morning I got dressed and went to make my mother some tea. No cream. No sugar. The cup rattled on the saucer as I carried it to her room. The more I tried to hold still, the more it rattled.
My mom was face-down on the pillow. I turned her alarm off and set her tea on the night stand. I looked around for anything I could clean up before I woke her. Her clothes were strewn everywhere, and there was a pile of her books on the floor. I put the clothes in the hamper. I set the books on her dresser beside a broken tube of lipstick.
On the dresser mirror, my mother had written “Get your shit together!” in lipstick. When I first saw it, I thought it was directed at me.
I sat down on the edge of the bed beside her. The snake tattoo curled all over the skin on her back, jet black with twists of green. The eyes were looking at me.
“Hello,” I whispered, and the snake twisted a little as my mother shifted in her sleep. I kissed the tips of my fingers, reached out and touched them to the snake’s nose. The snake’s name was Sicily, like the place. My mother told me that once. Sicily was my friend.
I liked this quiet part, just sitting with Sicily in the morning, before my mother woke up. Part of Sicily’s tail went around the side, where you aren’t supposed to look at your mother.
When I touched my fingers to Sicily, I could hear slithering in my head, like a slow rasp.
Mom was going to be late for work. I shook her shoulder, and she grunted. Then she rolled over, and I looked down at my hands, and picked up her tea.
“What time is it?” she said.
It took her a minute to wake up. Then she sat on the edge of her bed, and she sipped the tea. She didn’t smile and say “Was I a total idiot last night or what?” the way she always did. Instead, she stared at the mirror and drank her tea quietly.
After she was done, she sat for a few minutes more, wrapped in her bed sheet.
“I’m sorry,” she said. I shrugged my shoulders.
“Whatever,” I said, but she shook her head. “It’s okay,” I smiled. “Nothing I haven’t seen before!” I laughed, and I expected her to laugh too. “Nothing I haven’t seen before” was what she always said when I was having a bath and she had to pee. She said “Nothing I haven’t seen before” and then it was okay for her to come in.
It wasn’t the right thing for me to say this time, though. My mother set the tea cup down, and pulled me into a hug, and she squeezed me too hard and for too long.
“It’s okay,” I said, and tried to remember where it was safe to put my hand on her back. Snakes are friendly, but they don’t much like to be touched.
Then she saw what time it was. “Fucking Christ,” she said.
After she went to work, I opened my dictionary and looked up the word she had said last night, atheist. I stood in the mirror and said it to myself. “Atheist.” I leaned my forehead against the cold glass, and I said it very quiet. “Atheist.”
There are some words that connect with that secret part of you, and it feels as though you’re opening up in slow motion like a flower on TV when you say them all by yourself. Last night, after I heard my mother say “atheist,” I felt a bit of that strangeness. But standing in front of my mirror, I felt nothing.
School went the way school always goes. Class. Hallway. Class. Hallway. Lunch. Repeat. When she came home from work that night, my mother told me that she was sorry again. We were eating macaroni and cheese in the living room, with our plates in our laps.
“I’m going to try and get things back on track,” she said.
“Things are on track,” I said.
Upstairs I said “atheist” into the mirror again, and nothing happened. So I leaned forward and pressed my face against the glass and I said “Nigger” as quietly as I could.
I let myself go crazy for one, two, three seconds. I remembered how I wanted my father to hit her for saying it, wanted her to hit him for saying nothing in response. I remembered his watch beeping in the middle of that pause, and how I wanted something more than their faces inches away from one another.
This was the first and strongest of my magic words. It didn’t matter how many times I saw it on TV or heard Tupac say it. The one time I heard my mother say “Nigger” it created a new word all of its own. No dictionary could describe it. When he left that night, she sat on the floor and cried for a half an hour, and then she put on her boots and ran out after him. I sat on the bed in her room, looking at myself in the mirror. I fell asleep waiting for her to come back.
I said “Nigger” and it felt like I was pulling back the skin of an orange. It tore but it felt good. When I opened my eyes, my mother and father were standing before me, face to face. My memory was here in the room with me.
“Nigger,” my mother said, very quietly, very carefully. Neither of them moved. Neither of them said anything else. This was the way my mother used to look, shirt torn, her whole body shining with safety pins and spiked bracelets. Sicily curled around her shoulder, visible through a tear in the back of her shirt.
This was my father as a younger man, face serious, glasses straight. I watched for as long as I could.
When his watch beeped, I ran to the front door. I pulled on my shoes while tears streamed down my face. The laces wouldn’t tie. That’s where my mother found me, crying and struggling with the laces.
“Baby,” she said, sitting down beside me. “Oh.” Her voice was so soft. She pulled me into a hug and I cried. “What’s the matter?” she said.
“Ghosts,” was all I could say. She hugged me tighter.
“I see them too,” she said. “Not the same ones you see. Mine are old men and women. Bad memories. But I see them too.” She kissed my head. “I have magic words too,” my mother said. “I’ve forgotten a lot of them. But there’s always been magic in our family.” She took my hand. “Did you know that Sicily is older than I am?” she said.
I shook my head, and she nodded.
“My mother gave him to me,” she said. “The first time I got my period, she kicked in the bathroom door, screaming and yelling. Already I was terrified, blood everywhere. But my mother made it so much worse. She was wearing this horrible wooden mask, and I had no idea what was going on. She screamed words I didn’t understand and she punched me in the face.”
My mother was smiling as she told the story. I sniffed a little and laughed.
“I thought I went deaf,” my mother said. “Everything was quiet, and all of a sudden I could see Sicily, my mother’s tattoo, moving around on her skin. My mother was still yelling, I think, but I couldn’t hear her. I could only see her lips move. Sicily was hissing and I was crying. When he jumped onto me, I passed out. When I woke up, my mother was sitting by my bed and sobbing. She just kept saying ‘You’re a woman, now,’ over and over again.”
“Grandma did this?” I said.
“She had this crazy idea that magic needed rituals,” my mother said. “We weren’t Native American, we had no Indian blood, but she went out and bought this insane wooden mask. She bought a bunch of feathers and arrowheads. Anything she could find. She didn’t understand that we were just magic anyway. She needed to fit it into some system. Come on, get up.” My mom helped me up to my feet. She finished tying my shoes.
“Where are we going?” I said.
“We’re going for a drive to the desert,” my mother said. She pulled the door open and we walked out to the car. “I’m going to punch you in the face and you’re going to be a man.”
The desert had more stores and streets than I expected. We went to the grocery store, bought bread and peanut butter and honey and some orange juice. Then we drove until there were no more stores. Until ours was the only street. A long thin dirt highway. My mother had a map.
“We’re looking for an Indian reservation,” my mother said. She threw a candy wrapper out the window. “There’s one out here, the map says. I don’t know what tribe it is, or anything. We’re just going to get what we need and then find a mesa to climb.”
I didn’t ask what a mesa was. It was something magical. I could tell from the way my mother said it. When we arrived at the Indian reservation, my mother took a bunch of money out of her pocket and counted it.
“I hope this is enough,” she said.
“They probably have an ATM machine,” I said.
I listened to Tupac in the car while she went looking. I closed my eyes and pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the window. I listened to the song “Changes”, and then I listened to it again. This CD had been my father’s. I stole it from the box of things my mother had left out for the garbage man. I couldn’t remember what my father’s voice had sounded like. In my head, his voice was Tupac’s.
My mother came back with a big wooden mask under her arm. In her other hand she had feathers and a small paper bag. We drove for another two hours into the desert. We passed hills with flat tops, made out of mud, and my mother looked up at each one we passed. Eventually we stopped, and we climbed out of the car. I had to carry the blanket and the food, and my mother carried the mask and stuff. We climbed the side of a hill, through dirt and rock and up into the hot sun.
“I couldn’t find a shaman,” my mother said, when we reached the top. “I bought this stuff at convenience store. It was full of all kinds of tourist crap.” She tossed the mask and feathers onto the ground. “The girl behind the counter was your age,” she said to me. “I felt so stupid buying it. But you know. Tradition has to be maintained.”
She took the blanket from me and unfolded it. I helped her and we laid it out on the ground and I could feel all the rocks and sticks underneath it, but I didn’t complain. My mother took the small paper bag out of her pocket and opened it.
“Sacred Mushrooms,” she said. “I don’t know what I was expecting. A medicine hut? Some kind of teepee with an old woman sitting inside waiting for me? Everyone just directed me to this kid selling pot, and I asked him if he knew where I could find anything. He charged me fifty bucks, which is way too much for a handful of mushrooms he picked out of some cow shit.”
In the bag there were weird dried-up-looking sticks, with round ends, which my mother poured out onto the blanket. They didn’t look like mushrooms to me.
“We’ll put them in peanut butter sandwiches,” she said. “That’s what it said to do on the internet.”
So we made peanut butter sandwiches. I did most of the work, and my mom laid on her back in the sun with her eyes closed.
“It was weird to all of a sudden have this new tattoo,” she said. “I was supposed to hide it from the kids at school, but I didn’t. I showed it off. It was even weirder to see my mother without the tattoo. I was so used to seeing Sicily on her back and arm.”
“How many am I supposed to put inside?” I said. I picked up a few of the dried mushrooms. My mom covered her eyes against the sun and looked over at the sandwiches.
“Put it all in,” she said. “Half in yours and half in mine.”
“Are they really magic?” I said.
“Well, I don’t know,” my mother said. “We’re magic already. The mushrooms are just a kind of drug. But they’re a part of how Indians do their magic, and that’s why we’re here.”
“But we’re not Indian,” I said.
“No,” she said. “But this is what my mother did for me, and so this is what I’m going to do for you.”
We ate our sandwiches and sat on the blanket to wait. We were quiet for a long time. After a while, I moved closer, and I leaned my head on my mother’s shoulder. It was warm and it loved me.
“My mom never seemed interested in saving the world,” she said. “She told me again and again that I shouldn’t use magic to get ahead in life. It’s not worth it. Misusing magic to get a better job or more money will just end up making you unhappier. You’ll have to keep using magic, and life isn’t about how much money you have. That’s what my mom always said. She said that life is just about how your day is going.”
“What was grandma like?” I said, but my voice seemed to slip away. “I don’t remember.”
“I think it’s kicking in,” my mother said. When I turned to look at her again, she was wearing the wooden mask and she had all the feathers wrapped up in her fist. “I love you,” she said, and she punched me in the face. I felt the punch, but I didn’t hear it.
I felt invincible. My eyes watered up and my nose was on fire and I felt like I was going to live forever. There was something magic about getting hurt. Nothing felt real because the world was too bright and it looked like the ground was made up of patterns that locked together. I reached out for my mother. Even with the mask, it was still her and we were still on a hill together.
She picked me up and hugged me tight and I felt like I was slipping through the fabric of her clothing, like we were two colors of play-doh all wrapped up together.
I could hear Sicily hissing and slithering, and I could feel him snaking around onto my back. There was a moment where I opened my eyes and my father was standing on the mesa with us, flickering and grey and too colorless for the flashing wonderful desert. He was staring at us, and shaking his head in disappointment. He wanted me to hate my mother the way he hated her, for what she had said, for calling him “Nigger.”
My mother turned to look and he was gone. She took the mask off and looked again. I wanted to throw the mask off the side of the hill, but I didn’t. We lay on our backs and watched the clouds in the sky. My mother sat up and looked around. “Where’s the peanut butter?” she said.
I handed it to her. The wind sounded like glass.
“He was going to fight me for custody,” she said, scooping out peanut butter onto her finger. “He was going to tell them I was an atheist and a racist and I beat you with a spoon and that I was an unfit mother. In the end, I think he didn’t want the trouble.”
“I love you,” I said. She knew that though. She could feel it through the air.
“He was a good man,” she said. “But he never wanted kids.”
It was dark when we came down off the mesa, and my arms and back were sore from lying on the rocks. We left the mask and feathers and the blanket and everything else up there. I was tender where Sicily had taken hold, but he was dark and beautiful on my skin and I could hear the slithering sound now in my head, quiet and constant.
I watched my mother walking ahead of me, and I thought about the time the wooden spoon had broken on my behind. I thought about my mother drunk on the kitchen table telling jokes. I thought about her slamming me into the car door unexpectedly. I thought about her calling my father “Nigger.”
My nose was still bleeding and it felt swollen as I climbed into the car beside my mother. She rummaged around on the floor for the Dolly Parton CD, and I got that feeling in my stomach and in my heart and behind my eyes like when I said my magic words, like when the table broke and my mother fell. My heart opened and everything felt like it was in slow motion. This was my mother and she was crazy and broken and scary and she was strong and she was mine.