Tell me a story. Once upon a time there was a woman who was a very good mother. She was such a good mother that her name had disappeared from living memory and no one knew her exact age. Everyone called the woman mother, including her own children, of which there were many, each redolent of the thin sheets from whence they sprung. At one count the good mother was said to have fourteen children, but most likely this was an exaggeration. The good mother clutched each thin child to her breast and fed them lumps of cold Arborio rice until they fell into a thick dark sleep with no dreams and, in later life, developed a false memory of having been breastfed.
The good mother was said to have been good looking in her day. It was not true, but people wanted it to be true, so it became true, and the sepia portraits in their gilt frames on the mahogany sideboard testified to it.
Day and night the children panned the sideboard, storing up recurring images against the blackness that dripped into them with cold tea, ointment of clove, treacle.
What else was on the sideboard? Two china dogs, red-tongued and boudoir in their porcelein fur. A terracotta oil lamp. A stuffed owl in a belljar with a small rodent in its talons. An embossed silver sword from Prussia. Medals. Coins. Curious shells. A collection of clockwork automata.
What did the children not dream? They did not dream that when the good mother dropped and broke a child, she tidied up and started again. They did not dream that the good mother got up one morning and ate a raw fat baby. She took a bite of one arm and then continued—better not to leave scraps of truth, scraps of truth are upsetting.
Ah, but I find I am presenting the good mother as a type and that is too easy. This is not how human beings are. We are creatures of habit, not types. And so it was with the good mother. She crocheted shawls no one wore and saved pennies in a rusted tea cannister. She used lemon-smelling soap when she bathed and summer nights made her peevish. On winter nights the good mother loosened from herself in a reverie of light and heat. Beside the fire a dog slept, his eyes panting through dreams, while the good mother rocked in her rocking chair, and outside the blackness was only the blackness of existence. In these moments the children felt loved, or so they told each other as adults, over and over again, drinking in bars at the ends of cities, each recalling the same picture—the fire the heat the logs the mother the rocking chair the dog—until the pictures were photographs and the memories were real.
What did the children not talk about? They did not talk about that night in the deep hollow of winter when a child came knocking on the good mother’s door. A foundling child looking for love. The good mother took the child in and mothered it, but to no avail. Winter passed and then winter came again and all the while the foundling child refused to eat Arborio rice, slept fitfully and stole coins from the mahogany sideboard. The good mother grew restless. The child was not a very good child. Thick eyes and a propensity for feeling hard done by and a habit, accordingly, of complaining.
What happened? The child vanished. The father did not notice the child had gone, although he did notice his shoes sticky on the linoleum floor. The other children noticed the absence of the child, but since the presence of the child was not in their interest they said nothing, even to each other, as though they were all playing a really long game of hide and seek. The schoolmaster noticed the child was missing and each day intended to ask the good mother about the whereabouts of the child, but each day when he greeted her at the school gate the question seemed somehow churlish. If the neighbours noticed anything (which they always do) they said nothing. After all, the good mother was better than all the other mothers and made a pumpkin pie which everybody loved too much not to love the good mother.
What happened in the end? The good mother went to the market and got a fresh child, clear watery eyes, body like a vegetable just pulled from the earth. She fed it milk of magnesia and strawberries until everyone just burst upon seeing it and soon forgot the foundling child and lived happily ever after.
Is that all? Yes. Except that some nights the moon looks like it might eviscerate the sky and leave us forever with only a dim torch to light the earth.