Evan Robert Phillips
The mother was posed, hands on her hips, looking over the conditions of the flower spikes in her fertile hyacinth garden bed outside her cellar when she heard Mary’s screams from the woods. She leapt in one swooping motion from the back porch, and, before the screen door lurched violently into place as it closed behind her, she came upon Mary and took in the scenery of her daughter caught in between the mise en abyme there in the heart of the woods, the skull of a deer covered in moss placed there on display and the overgrowth from the moss patch glimmering green in the sunlight and the resilient dirt still chilled as it reverted back to its extended form. Mary in her purple dress hunched rigid on her scribbles of knees, with dirt coming off her hair and the chestnut shade of the Native skin of her arms. Mary’samber dimples and her eyes rolled low, and her gnashed teeth were visible inside her unfurled lips, strapped aside from the timorous hushed moans that reported once the screams ceased. The mother fallen down on her knees beside Mary, coddling Mary’s face in her hands, foolishly matching her moans to coax her adopted child into calming down—so gently that the mother was an ice age before the sun came out at last. The mother’s knees and fleshy feet sunk into the ground, and so, by pivoting her feet inward, the mother took the child under her arms and lifted her away from the skull of the deer to retreat from the heart of the woods, but her movements failed her. Holding Mary, she fell again—struck the ground—tapped the well of safety dry. The plates beneath them unbalanced, The mother lowered Mary to the dirt, which she gathered in her cupped hands and rubbed lightly over Mary’s face and chest and arms, desperately hoping to evaporate the tears and sweat coming off Mary. The mother called on God to cut her and her babe loose. The mother’s partner stumbled into the heart of the woods, and Mary’s mother sent her partner back home to return with a wet cloth to clean Mary. The mother’s partner’s mind recursively disturbed by the distress of her family, she was oblivious to how clumsily she stalked back to the home or that she no longer heard the disparaged moans and shrieks and cries; because if she heard them then they would stall her movement in uncertainty and prevent her from doing what needed to be done to help the child, which would be unbearable. The moans and screams and cries of the child and the mother were now so fixed they too were part the heart of the woods, things among the skull of the deer and moss and dirt—something else dangerous. The cellar door swung partially from the hinges and feathered on the axis and resisted the air. The hollow fur of a deer beneath a bitternut hickory tree across the gravel driveway seemed to impartially observe the cellar door, black hole eye sockets and cocked-back antlers, the moans and shrieks and cries still echoed from the distant heart of the woods. The awful bruises on the knee, and the throat and the clavicle and arms were a lighter shade of purple that faded into apricot under the cold dirt. Mary’s palms were not blistered, at least the mother did not think so, but Mary still moaned and cried and she cowered her little head, although now the moans and cries were merely the effect of hearing the mother plead for her to hush and for her precious babe to keep away from the cellar cabinet because far more bad than good things dwelled there. The mother was uncertain of how they got there. Distended, shaken-out water from Mary’s acute facial orifices and threaded fingernails poked at the mother’s temples to be held and the mother told her babe to be still and hush. Uncertainty recurred and despair for Mary’s suffering gathered in wisps within the mother’s amygdala. Yet just as Mary was caught between the mise en abyme of the skull of the deer and heart of the woods, so too were the wisps and their reflections cast that drew the mother away and rendered her incapable of expression for hours. When her partner came back, Mary’s mother snatched the wet cloth from her hand and gently knocked the dirt off Mary’s body before snuggly swaddled Mary and the mother lifted her once more from the dirt to soothe her with calloused palms soft touches. Her partner tried to rub specks of dirt from around Mary’s mouth and uttered words empty of sincere empathy, but was obstructed by the mother’s loving caresses and the repetition of the honest truth, to that she was here babe and to be still and hush. Mary cried, dry and gasping, a rustic wire-snapping emerged from behind them, the mother’s heartbeat momentarily ceased. There were dried patches of her chilled lips and the bursting-root of her thoughts. The jawbone of the deer skull distended and clasped, and bored holes where eyes once turned to the earth blossomed northern maidenhair ferns. Buried hearts beat from beneath the dirt, every hyacinth grew in the garden bed, and moss that covered the deer’s skull grew before them, and they knew what was buried before was haunted. A moment, maybe more, seemed too long for the spring and the sun, but at last it was over. By the mother’s side, her partner hummed “You Are My Sunshine” into Mary’s ear, and the mother cried that she could no longer look at the terrible things she had witnessed. Mary paled, the weight of her head and hunched back bowed as wisps of steam from the wet cloth on her burned Native skin cantered from beneath the hem of the wet cloth she was swaddled in.The parents’ eyes caught their own widened stares and gaping mouths. The mother tore the thin laces in the exposed back of Mary’s dress,leaning the babe forward into her partner’s arms and breast to unfurl her, but she resistedwith more dry moans. Their babe’s dress seared their hands and they saw where the real burns gripped and gathered on Mary’s back all whilst she moaned and shrieked and cried for help. They had not helped, had not thought to look at her back for burns, and so when they tore the back of the dress, the mother’s partner said the last name of every disparaged mother and leaned against an oak tree to keep her feet from stalling once more. The mother swore and cursed herself, her lineage, and the whole ruinous universe for not the final time because Mary could have been folding her hands into birds as she romped through the garden bed and laughing into sunburns if not for the breathless cries and scorched and bruised back. Mary snatched the mother’s thumb and clutched it—a holy pearl—while she watched the mother pick up the former song and carry the tune. Mary’shead a tilted labyrinth, she stared past the mother into something everybody knew she would one day have to deal with herself, something hazy and sharp-tongued and lonesome. If you have ever wanted to watch your own cursed ancestral reflection take you in hand and lead you into uncertainty and death, bear a child. The mother sings “you make me happy when skies are gray”, and hears as if her own grandmother wasnearby and watched what happened. Hours after the mother could not reconcile how badly she felt. She needed a drink; she was stuck in silence and black holes at every bright possibility in that moment as they walked up the cellar stairs into the kitchen and ran cold water over Mary’s shoulders and down her back. The motherbandaged her bruises and burns with cotton and gauze and swaddled her in a dry towel. The mother lifted her, babe’s head in her palm, and brought her to her bed. But by then it was too late, somewhere within the bank and blanket, where the ancestry of abuse and lineages of disparity on Appalachian soil,in the beating hearts beneath the dirt, Mary could not be held honestly despite the misery. The mother was not happy how she herself got here, where the shadows of deception stitched at the seams, and Mary weighed down, a thing among the earth, the child watched thenceforth cause and effect unfold from the margins of the her soul, inhumed aloft, all button eyes on babydoll.
Evan Robert Phillips is an undergraduate student at Appalachian State University.