My mother left with two suitcases.
Instead of fleeing a lover, she fled a nation. Ran. From the advancing army. From tanks that rumbled over the earth and up through the soles of her feet, until her knees ached, and her hips slipped out of alignment.
As a child I imagined barbed wire. The dark of the moon. The bellow of dogs and bellies face-down in the mud.
But this was before cell phones and satellites. When communication still took some time.
In the chaos of the first few hours, borders remained open. Buses still ran.
With two suitcases in hand, my mother was ushered onto an Austrian-bound bus by her father. He kept his stage four cancer a secret. Said he would follow. Lied to her round, trusting face, so she could find freedom. And then died, three days later, alone.
When word reached my mother in the refugee camp, her body erupted in hives. Multiple rashes of eczema and psoriasis exploded over her torso like stars. Her palms turned to putty. Became pulpy and raw. Sticky as glue. And they wrapped around those suitcase handles, like shoulder blades that hug the spine, when a heart is lifted toward the sky.
Over time, her palms fused to the handles and refused to move.
“Anyu,” I’d say, extending my arms, flexing my chubby fingers.“Up! Up!”
She would look down at the suitcases, welded to her palms, and “tsk.” Her teeth full of toxic metal fillings. “Nem.” she’d say, shaking her head. “You must pick your own self up, in this life, moja baba. But a story, I can tell. Come sit, moja baba, right here, on my suitcase.”
The clasps of the suitcase dug into my young thighs and I’d fidget and twist, as she told me the story of her escape. Her warm breath bringing with it the sound of tanks, the trembling streets, the sour taste of wet iron.
“Anyu, come in with me,” I begged. “I don’t know the teacher.”
Children clambered past, dressed to the finest for the first day of school. One sparkling clean hand on the hand rail, the other safe in their mothers’ palms.
“I’m scared,” I whispered. “Please.”
My mother huffed an aggravated breath. The air from her body brought the biting scent of caraway seeds and black coffee. She rattled the two suitcases at me. “You cannot be scared. Never, in this life. Moja, where would we be if I had been scared?”
In angular vowels and sharp glinting “v”’s, she recounted the trembling streets, the rumble of tanks, the croaking farewell of her father.
“Anyu,” I said carefully. I closed my eyes and slid a paper across the kitchen table. “It’s graduation.”
She pursed her lips. “Look at the price of the seats. I would need three,” she indicated the two suitcases with a nod of her head. “Who has such money for this? Not me. Not you. Save your money, moja baba, save for smarter things.”
“But Anyu, it’s graduation, everyone is going.”
“Because everyone does, then you do too?” The disgust in her voice wafted across the table like tear gas. “You know how many stayed when the tanks came? You know where are they now?”
She spat out the names of the dead. Rapid as gunfire. Her accent broken as glass.
So I saved my money and went to college. I met a man, married, and gave birth to two daughters. I doted on them. Loved and spoiled them. Carried them so much, the pediatrician joked they’d never learn to walk on their own.
I forbid my mother to talk about the suitcases to my girls. I threatened not to bring them around, if she so much as mentioned the tanks, the streets, the terror and sadness.
But she didn’t seem to mind. She was all smiles as they climbed about those suitcases and used them for hide and seek. All joy, as they brought cushions from the couch and fashioned elaborate forts about them. All giggles, as they placed doilies and doll sized cups upon them, setting a pretend table for afternoon tea.
As the years went on, my mother’s body groaned beneath the weight of those bags. Arthritis crackled through the cartilage between each vertebra. Her spine compressed. Her body drooped, slowly, like damp clay. Head-heavy and too thin about the middle.
She began to smell of rotting onions.
By the time I got her to the doctors, the cancer was so bad, they told me I might as well take her home and make her comfortable.
She lay in bed, yellow and brittle, both arms hanging over the side, suitcases in hand.
Spit gathered in the corners of her mouth and formed into white paste. “You need to carry these now, moja baba. One for each of your daughters. Promise me.”
“Of course,” I lied. “Anything.” And I trembled like the earth.
In the quiet of her room, she died.
Tenderly, I uncurled her fingers from the handles. I thought, after all this time, they would be stiff. But her fingers fell back gently. Softened toward her palms. Almost languid. Almost serene.
I was going to toss those suitcases. I’d decided that long ago.
But I couldn’t lift them.
They were heavy. Insanely heavy. Immovable masses of leaden concrete.
I tried. Again and again, I tried. Crouched low and braced my shoulder against them and gave great heaving shoves. I used my arms. Used my legs. Used a lever. Attempted to hoist a corner onto a dolly I’d borrowed from a neighbor.
They wouldn’t budge.
I stood panting over my mother. Her frail body still soft with death.
She had carried these impossible bags her entire life.
And I, I had to call the movers just to drag them to the curb.
Karin Terebessy is a yoga teacher and mother who writes in her spare time. Her science fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Daily Science Fiction, Stupefying Stories, Sci-Phi Journal, Kaleidetrope, Flash Fiction Magazine and other zines. Her faith-based essays can be found on Aish.com.