After the service, everyone came up to console me. Women enfolded me in scented hugs, cooing like so many mourning doves, “Deepest sympathy,” “So sorry for your loss,” and “She’s in a better place now.” The men patted my shoulder and, as if to speak of death was faintly obscene, muttered gruff, inarticulate regrets.
A warm cloud of mourners surrounded me on the way to my mother’s house, where kindly neighbors had set forth a buffet, including strong drink. “You must eat something,” they said, and I allowed myself to be persuaded. I even accepted a glass of whiskey. After the second drink I rewarded all their kindness with a faint, tremulous little smile.
In the weeks afterwards, I had the eager assistance of several of Mother’s friends in sorting out her clothes. The old dears spoke understandingly, in hushed tones, of the need for me to move on with my life. I donated the wearable clothing, with other personal belongings including her many ashtrays, to a charity thrift store.
Later, alone, I took down her framed reproductions of famous paintings and replaced them with works more to my taste. I repainted her bedroom — the best in the house — and hired strangers to move her furniture out and mine in. I kept her fine oak dressers, after cleaning and polishing, but her bed, despite its magnificence, I also donated to charity.
Next I repainted the kitchen, boxing up her favorite dishes to give away, with her recipe books and her paperback romance novels. No one would buy them, stained as they were with food and reeking of stale cigarette smoke, but I understand that thrift stores bundle up unsalable books and send them to be pulped for paper.
The house was mine now; gradually, cautiously, I made it mine. There were few witnesses to its new lightness of atmosphere, as her friends, once assured that — at the age of fifty! — I was functioning on my own, had gradually ceased to visit with casseroles and offers of help. Myself, I had no friends.
It was a relief to be alone my house at last, with no need to feign grief or moderate my smiles. I smiled, I sang, I laughed aloud as I scrubbed and painted and hung fresh curtains. Some days it took all my self-discipline not to shout my joy from the housetops. But some caution, I thought, was necessary.
You see, I killed her.
Oh, she was wicked! Evil, and treacherous, and so sly. For fifty years, that woman, whom everyone thought so sweet, had made my life a torment.
Never mind how I killed her. It would have been easy enough to discover my crime — if anyone had been looking for it. But no one was.
At last all the labor of cleaning and claiming the house was finished. I had no more tasks to occupy my hands or, more importantly, my mind. Apart from putting in time at my secure, undemanding, utterly boring job, I was now fully at leisure. Alone in my clean, delightful house, I discovered, to my infinite surprise and dismay, that I was lonely.
All those years, while we inflicted endless subtle cruelties on each other, she’d kept the friends of her youth, taking a sardonic pleasure in how skillfully she hid from them her true nature. But I made no friends myself; it always seemed too much trouble. Those who praised our mutual devotion, truly, were not so very far wrong. Bound together as we were in our private hell, she and I, we had room for no one else in our lives.
Now I am alone. I have acquaintances, of course, my co-workers and my friends from church. People invite me to dinner now and then, and to their Christmas parties. But there’s no one left who knows me, no one who knows how wicked I am. It had never occurred to me how bereft, in that regard, her death would leave me.
Having acknowledged my loneliness, I began to castigate myself for removing every trace of her existence from the house. If only I’d kept the leavings of her physical being, I thought, her spirit might have remained to haunt me: to comfort me with familiar torments. I have no way of knowing whether that’s true.
After much thought, I have decided to hold a séance. I will retrieve the framed photo of her from the downstairs closet where I hid it — not quite having the nerve to give it away or destroy it — and light candles beside it. I will make a little altar, in fact, as Mexican people do for departed family members, and on it I will place all her favorite things, to entice her spirit back into the house.
Yes, I’ll do it. I’ll bake some of those nasty hard scones she made every Sunday. I will buy a pack of her brand of cigarettes, and I’ll go to the thrift store and buy an ashtray to burn them in. Ironically, it’s likely to be one of her ashtrays; there aren’t so many of those around nowadays as there used to be.
I should pick up some sleazy romances, too, the ones that look as though they’re full of sexual violence. She was beginning to get hooked on the new varieties that feature vampires or zombies or succubi. The undead have much more scope than the living, I gather, for perversity, and my mother did love her perversity. Is it any wonder I choose to keep my body to myself?
Never mind that. Yes, I will set up this altar, and when it’s ready I will light the candles — and a cigarette too. I will pour myself a glass of the cheap brandy she favored from the bottle on the altar, and though I hate the taste, I will drink it. And then I will say aloud those words I had never thought to speak. “Mother, I miss you. Come back.”
Born in 1948, Alison Jean Ash writes fact, fiction and fantasy, and has braided together all three in a work about the life, death, and aftermath of her mentally ill mother, TWO LITTLE GIRLS: A JOURNEY TO HEALING. This story is fiction; the mother in it is not her mother.