"Mothers" is a story the reader has to work at. I fell in love with the imagery and the language of this story as I was swept along in a tide of allegory that I didn't understand.
I could see the shadows of huge, intense emotions swimming beneath and watched truisms flash in the light as, like me, they skimmed the surface but I wasn't able to turn what I read into a narrative.
So I read it a second time, putting aside my expectation that this was a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and let myself take it in as a sort of kaleidoscope of memories, lit by longing.
It seems to me that this story is partly a lament for what might have been and partly an attempt to come to terms with grief.
The narrator tells, in a non-linear way, of her experience falling in love with, living with and then losing a woman she calls "Bad". Bad is exciting, unconventional, attentive, demanding, dominant and verbally, and eventually physically, abusive. In her grief at losing Bad, the narrator imagines/hallucinates/fantasizes that Bad has given birth to their baby and then left it with the narrator to raise. I believe the baby represents the relationship she and Bad might have had if they had been able to stay together.
Beneath this narrative, there seems to be a reflection on what it means to be a mother, what mothering means and the conflicting emotions of love, anger, fear, despair and guilt that being a mother provokes.
Near the start of the story, these themes of abusive relationship and the nature of motherhood twist around one another in a scene where Bad presents the unexpected and apparently miraculously conceived baby. After handing the baby to the narrator, Bad says:
“I was pregnant. Now there’s a baby. She’s yours.” My brain doubles back on the sentence. For months, my head has been so fuzzy. Mail is stacked unread on my kitchen table, and my clothes are a giant mound on my once-immaculate floor. My uterus contracts in protest, confused.
The narrator's confusion makes wonder if Bad or the baby is there or if they are the product of the narrator's grief after the ending of their relationship.
The next exchange is a hint at Bad's narcissistic dominance of the narrator:
“Look,” Bad says. “There’s only so much that I can do. I can’t do any more than that. Right?” I agree, but something feels wrong about following her down this line of reasoning. Dangerous. “You can only do as much as you can do,” I repeat anyway.
Immediately before Bad abandons the narrator and the baby, she gives a wonderful summary of the challenges of raising a baby.
“Good,” Bad says. “When the baby cries, she could be hungry or thirsty or angry or cranky or sick or sleepy or paranoid or jealous or she had planned something but it went horribly awry. So you’ll need to take care of that, when it happens.”
I found only one declaration from the narrator:
I believe in a world where impossible things happen. Where love can outstrip brutality, can neutralize it, as though it never was, or transform it into something new and more beautiful. Where love can outdo nature.
This leads me to the idea that the baby, or the idea of the baby, is a product of the narrator's desire to believe in the impossible and to "outdo nature".
This tendency to superimpose the desired world over the real surfaces immediately after the physical abuse that ends the relationship. The injured narrator has locked herself in the bathroom and stood under the shower, imagining a life with Bad and their child but imagination is not enough:
"Then the not-memory washed away like a wet painting in a storm, and I was in the shower, shaking, and she was outside, losing me, and there was no way for me to tell her not to. There was no way for me to tell her that we are so close, we are so close, please don’t do this now, we are so fucking close."
The ending of the story still escapes me. We move on from one baby to two children Mara and her brother and all the anxieties they bring. We seem to have a slide into guilt and remorse but it could also be self-pity as the narrator hears a voice inside her saying:
"There was nothing tying you to her and you made it anyway, you made them anyway, fuck you, you made them anyway. To Mara and her brother, I say: Stop running, you’ll fall, stop running, you’ll break something, stop running, your mother will see, she will see and she will be so angry and she will yell and we cannot, we cannot, I cannot. I say: Don’t leave the faucet on. You’ll flood the house, don’t do it, you promised it would never happen again. Don’t flood the house, the bills, don’t flood the house, the rugs, don’t flood the house, my loves, or we could lose you both. We’ve been bad mothers and have not taught you how to swim."
I'm not sure what the swimming means.
So I have a beautifully written story with bright fragments of pain and hope and joy that keep shifting as I look at them. This seems to be an invitation to collaborate with the writer to discover or perhaps create meaning.