“How can I love my child when my own mother can’t love me?”
The daughter looks over at her mother, who is glaring at her.
“Come now mother, sit down while I make the bed.”
She gently helps her mother take a seat on the bed. The mother groans loudly.
“We have only just laid your father five feet under and you are already bossing me around.”
The daughter sends her a cautious smile. The mother looks at her in disbelief.
“Six feet under is what people usually say.”
The mother mutters impatiently.
“That may well be, but it hardly matters to your father now, does it? I know that much.”
The mother gets up again with a stubborn sigh. The daughter fluffs the pillow, thoroughly.
“I was only going to help you to bed, mother. You did say that you wanted to lie down in your room for a bit.”
Scolding, the mother grabs hold of the pillow.
“I don’t want dust all over the house. You know that!”
The mother’s voice quivers again.
“You just want me out of the way. I have nothing to live for now that your father is five feet under.”
The daughter looks as though she is about to say something, but stops herself. The mother looks at her defiantly.
“Well? Say something! Aren’t you going to say that it should be six? No matter, I could not care less; I much prefer the alliteration of five feet.”
She spells it out for her daughter:
“A L L I T E R A T I O N! Do you understand? A L L I T E R A T I O N!”
The daughter turns away from her mother. Closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, while the skin tightens across her jawbones. The mother glares at her daughters’ back with disdain. She can feel her mother’s piercing eyes.
“When I die… you will be millionaires…”
“You’re not going to die, mother. You will outlive us all!”
The mother fails to stifle a grudging chuckle, and leans back into the bed.
“Where is Janus? Why won’t you let me see my only grandchild?”
“You know you don’t tolerate children when you feel like this! It’s probably best if you get some sleep now. Mother dear!”
The mother sits up with a jerk.
“Don’t you “dear” me, and don’t you dare tell me what I can and cannot tolerate. What would you know about fatigue?”
“Mother! Not now. Please!”
The mother imitates her with a scowl.
“Pleeeease”! Go now! I want to be alone.”
The mother climbs out of bed, rushes to the door and signals to her daughter to leave. The daughter halts at the threshold, looks pleadingly at her mother. The mother ignores her and calls down the hallway:
“Janus, come to granny, come. Come to comfort granny. Mummy isn’t very nice to granny today. Come darling, I have lots of those sweeties you like so much. The ones with the pretty shiny wrappers.”
Janus scampers down the corridor; he is five years old. He leaps into the bed and starts to jump giddily. The daughter moves to stop him, but the mother’s gaze nails her to the spot.
“Janus! We don’t run inside this house. Poor boy, your mother hasn’t raised you very well, has she? And we don’t jump in the bed either. Now, sit down like a good boy, so that you can comfort granny.”
Janus sits down obediently, both his legs are dangling off the bed; he smiles in wide-eyed anticipation at the pair by the door. The mother looks at the daughter with schadenfreude and closes the door, it clatters as she locks it.
The daughter is left standing outside the door. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands. Starts pacing the hallway, restlessly, listening to the laughter and happy voices behind the mother’s door. She tiptoes without a sound, as if she doesn’t want anyone to hear her. Occasionally she stops and puts her ear to the door. Listens with bated breath until she hears Janus’ chirpy voice, then resumes her pacing, while the big mirror watches her. She doesn’t want to be observed, tries to escape it, doesn’t want to see how worry has ploughed her young face, but the mirror captures the entire hallway, and she sees that all she knows how to do anymore is fret.
She stops at the door again, listens, hears no sounds from them, looks frightened at her reflection, wrings her hands again and again. For a moment she doesn’t know who she is, that pale women looking at her in the mirror. For a split second she thinks it is her mother,laughing at her. Her heart is pounding. She forces herself to look away. Hesitates, glances around. Moves over to a handsomely carved oak chest. Opens every drawer, quietly. Her hands search and search, find nothing. She runs around the big house, rummages through the attic, the basement for keys, any key she can find. In the end she has two fists full of keys, large and small, old and new.
She stumbles back into the hallway, pants, comes to a sudden halt when she sees that her mother’s door is ajar. She tries to calm down, breathe steadily, deeply, in and out, they way the yoga instructor taught her. She approaches the door, stuffing all the keys in her pockets, then pushes the door open, slowly.
The mother is dozing in the bed. Janus is nowhere to be seen. The curtains flap wildly in the gust, and through the open window she sees that dusk is falling.
“Jesus, mother. Where is Janus?”
No reply. She yells in anguish.
“MUM! Don’t be like that! Not now!
The mother turns impatiently in the bed, rolls onto her back.
“I let him go back out to you, girl, so you are the one who hasn’t looked after him properly. And don’t think, I don’t know how you get yourself in a right state every time he is in here with me. You can’t even let me have the shortest moment with him. I, who couldn’t have a son. You don’t know what it is like to have had only one child, a…”
The daughter wells up. She bites down on her lip, hard.
“Why are you so hysterical, girl? That is why you are alone with him. No man wants a hysterical woman. “
The daughter is standing by the window. Out by the garden gate several shiny candy wrappers float in the wind. The gate is swinging on its hinges, wide-open to the big road with the big cars. Still no Janus in sight. An ambulance drives slowly past the open gate, accelerates, the siren starts screeching, spine-chilling like a cry for help, a person in desperate distress, a child. The mother cackles.
“Oh darling, you will never be able to take care of children either.”
The daughter approaches her mother silently, stands by her side looking down at her for a while. The mother yawns heartily.
“Just count yourself lucky that you don’t have a husband who thinks children are oh so delightful.”
The mother sighs and shuts her eyes.
“Yes mother, poor poor you, who had to bear dad a child.”
The mother cracks one lid and eyes her daughter with suspicion.
“Don’t you start with me now, girl.”
The mother closes her eye and yawns again.
“Woman, mother. Woman!”
“Woman, mother? Oh no, being a woman takes more than just knowing how to have babies. Why are you still moping over there? You are using up all the good clean air I need.”
The daughter picks up a pillow, she is dead calm, she bends guardedly down towards her mother, holds the pillow over her face, muffling all sound from her. That instant Janus comes bounding in.
“Mum, mum! Look what I found!”
He proudly holds his hands out to show her. Grubby little paws cupping all the writhing worms he has found.
She opens her eyes, squints against the light. Her eyes wander around the room, homeless, until they find a little boy fast asleep in the other bed, Janus, her beloved little boy. She lies still looking at him, searching every detail of the little face, the forehead, nose, the warm round cheeks, the lips with the cupid’s bow and a trail of drool tracing the way to the handsome chin. All the minute features she loves so much that it hurts. Janus opens his eyes and smiles with wonder at this serious pale woman’s face examining him so closely. She smiles at him, feels her heart lighten.
“When are we going home, mum?”
“Wait a little, sweetheart, we are leaving soon, I just have to help granny with something first.”
“Do you love granny?”
“Yes, but not as much as I love you.”
She kisses every inch of his face. Janus laughs happily.
“Just lie here and wait for me. I promise I will hurry.”
She hands him a comic book and leaves.
The daughter is searching for the mother, who is nowhere to be found. She flings doors open, calls for her, but nobody answers. She reaches a door, tries the handle, but it is locked. She knocks on the door, shouts, no answer. She slowly bends down to look in through the keyhole. At first she sees nothing in the dark. Slowly her eyes grow accustomed to the blackness, she starts when she sees the outline of a white coffin. She rummages feverishly through her pocket and pulls out one key after the other. In the end, she is left with all the keys in the hand. She tries the first one, it doesn’t fit, neither does the second one. After many keys one finally slips in without resistance, she turns it and the door swings open.
She cautiously approaches the casket, holds her breath. When she reaches it, she halts without looking down. She switches on the little lamp by the coffin and slowly turns her head to glance down on the mother’s peaceful face, which still bears a trace of impatience. She hears something behind her and turns to face Janus who is entering the room. She looks at him in disbelief, tries to say something, but the words won’t come out.
“There, there mum, did you forget again that gran died and is lying on the bier here at home tonight?”
She clears her throat again and again, manages to whisper,
“So granny didn’t give you sweeties in her room yesterday?”
Janus laughs and embraces her gently.
“You and your sweeties, mum. It’s been at least fifteen years since I stopped letting gran lure me in with candy. I mean, you almost had a fit every time.”
Janus gently leads her out of the room.
“Why are you carrying all those old keys around, mum? Most of them don’t fit any doors anymore.”
He takes the keys from her, locks the door behind them and pulls the key out.
“Come now mum, you need to rest a little. The bearers will be here soon. The funeral is today.”
A shiny candy wrapper tumbles lazily behind them in the light breeze from the door.
From the short stories collection Aftanáðrenn.
Translated by Marita Thomsen.