Back to top
Fiction by Jaclyn Watterson
Your first memory was of sunlight, vague but bright. Sunlight streaming in a window, and everything so glowing it was colorless. You could not see the objects in the room, but by the smell you knew it was beginning.
Being so new yourself, you could not identify these smells. But later, you felt at home with silk, hundred year old roses, new rubber, onions with earth still clinging to them, worms wriggling in the rain, rotting leaves.
Later, as these smells grew names, your first memory was replaced a thousand times.
A little girl is staring at my breasts. I don’t blame her; I have very beautiful breasts. Many women and men have told me this.
But when I dressed in this suggestive silk, I did not have little girls in mind. I am in a city I do not know, and while it is not exactly love I am looking for, I am also not looking for little girls. I have my own.
In a city I do not know, I find it comforting to think of rainforests—ancient dark and brooding in a way that is only vaguely sinister.
The rainforest, a place I have never been, is where I feel most at home. I’m looking now for someone who might yet understand. (I’d like to take you to bed without telling you I’m in the rainforest, and imagine while we are between sheets that you will know what I mean when I say, Let us pause a moment for the bromeliads and orchids.)
A little girl could not understand this. In my own girlhood I was offended when Santa gave me a stuffed blue bear. Bears, in those days, were never blue.
And now I long for rainforests filled with blue bears, filled and overflowing. So that I do not have to be in a city I do not know where a little girl is staring at my breasts.
In the August sun, glaring, you are cutting an onion. You say you will make soup. Why, I ask, would you make soup in this heat. You only look at me, and make no reply. The air is humid and oppressive, and the smell of onion makes it worse. You are crazy is what I think, but don’t say. You are cutting outside, on the sidewalk. Onion juices are seeping across the rough surface, and I wonder if there will be any left for the soup. I ask if you want me to get some bread for the soup, but you say it’s too hot for bread.
I want to walk through the screen door, then close the heavy wood and lock you out. I want you to stay there on the sidewalk cutting your stinking onion until the heat dissipates and it begins to snow. But even then, you probably would suggest ice cream.
There’s no chance of rain.
And now I smell myself mixing with the onion. I imagine it’s the foul fruit making me tear up, and kick my flip-flop off, in your direction. Again, you do not say anything. You go on dicing the onion, ever smaller. The sun’s moving in closer, and I want to go up to my room, where I know the blinds are closed, but I stand here, watching you with your onion, wondering why it is no carrot. After all, my room is only a room in your house. I am nearly middle aged, and there is no doubt you are old, but still we live in your house. I think other daughters, who live with other mothers, claim the space as their own. They make the old houses new, and belong to themselves, these other daughters. But I have a room in your house.
OH, DO YOU THINK ANYTHING HAS EVER BEEN ORANGE? it hasn’t.
I see the segmented body of a worm coil out and then quickly back in to the earth. It is something to believe in, after so much rain.
I regret not cheating on my last boyfriend, the one my mother liked, and think: birds poop from the air.
If I could just focus on the segments of the worm—a hermaphrodite—I might understand some of these things. Journeying through the earth, eating my way through its delectable crust, that is who I might be.
Forgetting boyfriends and birds, I could be a worm.
Like rubber ducks or rain boots. But Laura cannot play with rubber ducks or splash in puddles. She has discarded her childhood.
She’s going to be a teenager when she grows up, and no one will know about all the rest.
Her hair, her mother insisted, must be bobbed. And so it is bobbed and veryvery bright. Her head glows and she resents this. She wants to get kisses from boys and drink cold wine from a box, and it is her glowing, bobbing head that is preventing these things.
And her mother is still buying her underwear. She chooses little flowers and stripes, full coverage. In response to this, Laura is listening to music.
It is the music her mother tells her is trash, especially when Laura rocks her hips.
Laura’s mother comes home to find the house dark, the music loud. She begins to shout, but her voice is lost. She switches on the light, and there is Laura, whirling and swinging through the living room, with painted nails and shadowed eyes.
It was hard to come by, and I almost didn’t.
There wasn’t a glitter or glimmer.
It was in the farthest corner, in the back of someone else’s dresser drawer.
Lies I told my sister:
In the vastest ocean lived a wolf and a whale. The whale had an advantage, being an expert swimmer, and very kind. And the wolf also had an advantage, being an expert snarler, and very cunning.
You were born in that vast ocean; the whale was your father and the wolf your mother. You inherited none of their traits, and were the stupidest and slowest thing in the ocean. The whale and the wolf were greatly disappointed that their child was human, and you put a great strain on their relations, being so stupid and human.
You weren’t even kind.
Finally, they were at a breaking point. Even the whale, who was very kind, said to the wolf, My dear
, we got on so well before the child
. Even she is unhappy
. Perhaps it is best for all…
But the whale was not so unkind that he could finish the sentence.
The cunning wolf, however, understood what her husband was saying. And so that snarly, cunning wolf, who was your own mother, bit your flesh, tore your legs. She bit them to ribbons, so that you could not walk, and the water was tinted with your blood for miles.
You cried out, and so the whale, who was after all still a very kind whale and a good swimmer, put you on his back and swam you toward shore.
He left you sitting and sobbing in the sand at the edge of the land, and that is where my mother, the human you think is also your mother, found you. She was neither cunning nor kind, but was a swimmer (else how would she have found you?) and rather snarly. She needed another child, a worker, so she took you home and never told you that you were an alien ocean baby.
Those scars on your legs, which you were told were burns from when I dropped a pot of boiling water on you, are the bite scars from your real mother. Because she didn’t love you.
My sister was not so stupid that she disbelieved.
This girl, Laura can tell with a glance, grew up with a red couch. But Laura cannot glance away. Think of this girl, as a child, bouncing on a red couch—scarlet or cinnamon, maybe burgundy or crimson, but red-red-red.
People are divided two ways, she knows, those who had red couches as children, and those who did not. Laura did not. But this girl did, so Laura stares.
She is sure, and this certainty is not something she is familiar with, perhaps because the couch she sat on as a child was not crimson or scarlet or even burgundy or cinnamon. And it smelled like smoke.
The girl Laura is staring at smells like apples, beacon or red delicious. She is sure. She has never been sure like this before.
If she approaches this woman—Laura considers the consequences. Maybe her preoccupations will cease. Maybe they will move in together and buy a red couch. Fill their whole house with red furniture and red carpet and red wallpaper and dishes and sheets.
But she is not so sure she’ll approach the girl.
It seemed possible, in those days, to live only inside. It was raining, and the clouds were coming in closer every minute. I could not remember what the streets looked like, and there was nowhere to go. Bottles crowded in close around the sink, and dishes mounted nearly to the faucet. I was low on money and trying not to turn on the lights unless I had to. The more bottles that joined the crowd, the less it seemed I had to.
I was living alone, in those days. My mother was dead and I seldom had company. I ate a lot of cabbage. I hadn’t painted my nails or worn makeup in years, but I still looked in the mirror every day. Just once.
Later, I did go out. And I found a great depression in the earth, where the street had been. At the bottom, roses had choked. This seemed very cruel, and very beautiful, like the kind of woman I’d imagined, as a girl, I’d be.
I wanted to find a way to the bottom of this gorge, but. But still I was only eating cabbage, and wasn’t very strong.
I imagined that maybe the thorns of those choked roses would be like fountain-of-youth-water; they’d give me strength and vitality like I could only pretend to remember.
But it seemed the greater possibility was rain.
Just once. Laura was in a cabin, rented for the weekend. Leaves were crisping off the trees outside, and her companion was softly, darkly bearded. There was a fireplace, and they used it. There was wine, and they drank it. There were lips and tongues, and they loosened them.
There was a couch, but they used the floor. There was sweat and tousled hair, and the beard grew softer and just slightly longer as she stroked it.
He did not say a word, and it was the greatest conversation. His breathing was slow and careful, and she was almost able to match it.
Later, after hours of silent conversation, he drew a bath.
Come in with me, he said pulling back her long bright hair.
Let’s light candles, she said with a small smile.
They couldn’t find any, but it didn’t seem like the tragic foreshadower it was. Not just then, because they had slipped into a bath.
I could live like this forever, he said.
But they were wrong. It was just once.
She used to pretend to be a wolf as a child. Not an alpha or a dependent teenager, but strong and needing no one but the orange moon.
She would play this game not in the bathtub or her bedroom, but between the fences of the backyard, and only on cold days. When the weather was warmer, she never could feel quite like a wolf.
I was born inside the hot wax of a burning candle. I was burned at birth, but the candle was pink and rose scented.
I have returned here, to these smoky shores of my childhood, in order to feel uncomfortable.
Never so smoky before. And oddly more wild now than ever in days of greater imagination. An island I remember walking to at low tide is miles and miles away now, shrouded in ghost dust. Horseshoe crabs once fucking and funny in the sand are now anciently dead and floating in murky water.
Who belongs here?
Birth inside a candle people often mistake—they think it the same as being born inside a glass jar. But jar babies look out; I look in. I look to absurd islands and lewd creatures. And I always smell like synthetic roses, my birthright.
That island, did I make it up? Real, then or now?
Things I know are real:
-I drank so much I thought I’d die. To see how much it took before death seemed possible.
-I swam from a wax cliff, all the way to the opposite shore, another wax cliff. This happened in my first moments of life.
-I told my sister our candle was not real. She believed me.
-I once got lost inside a red and white checkered tablecloth, and hoped I could stay.
There are others, but just now, with the heady smell of smoke and roses, I cannot recall.
a woman was crawling along a broad jungle leaf when she came upon an aphid. the leaf was in a backyard, in a strange city.
can i help you find something, asked the aphid.
can i help you
find something, asked the woman.
you are the one out of place, said the aphid.
that is arguable, said the woman.
they looked at each other for a moment, and then each heard the lawnmower start up.
Your mother and your sister, the lovers you had known—gone.
You could revisit places where you had known them, but they were empty. Your first memory might have been hands under your arms, lifting you; or your bare foot next to your sister’s shoed one, still smaller; or a kiss on your forehead from indiscernible lips.
But instead you thought of things you couldn’t see, in the back of your mother’s drawers. A knife, a swimsuit, a lighter for the scented candles. And those things were in your sister’s drawers too; and your lovers’. Your own drawers you tried to keep free of clutter. And in the days that followed the ones you remembered, you found that the best you could do was stare into a slow stream at the corner of your mother’s yard.
Everything was very bright, or very dark, but you couldn’t make out a single object. You thought you smelled something—a strange hotel room, or your mother’s kitchen, or earthworms. Perhaps new rubber, something shiny, or a wolfish lie. You looked, for a time, for the thing to hold on to, the thing that could connect it all.
Things were two ways at once, or a million. Colorless, but a prism shadow of light. There were the things you had known, and the things you hadn’t. But these were the same. Things were as empty as the places you had been with others and you had one memory. You had a hundred or a thousand. Maybe thirteen.
Jaclyn Watterson is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of Utah. Her stories have
also appeared in Sou’wester
, Essays and Fictions
, and a few other places.
She takes her coffee black and once rode on the back of a motorcycle.
Volume 1, Issue 6
Back to top