My mother died with her eyes open, and looked at me long after she was gone. I sat the Staring as I’d been taught: all night without a blink and only a candle to stop the darkness burrowing too far in. Well, it should have been a candle. I couldn’t find the matches so I draped an orange scarf over a table lamp. My mother’s gaze was, even in death, disappointed. The pattern on the silk projected shadows of spirals across her face, white and brittle as dried garlic skin. A night had never felt so long. My eyes streamed but I kept them wide open like I knew I had to, to give the last wisps of my mother somewhere to go.
Our line that started as a river now runs like a trickle descended from a rivulet, dripping down and disappearing, once again, into the ground. We changed our course around the obstacles, slipped into a subterranean flow while others on the surface were dammed by piles of firewood and barrels of tar. Where sisters drowned and sank, we floated quietly amongst the other flotsam, and lived.
Morning was silver birch grey. The grave I’d dug gaped like a toothless mouth, the whiskers of grass around the lips already drooping over the abyss, dew clinging to their arched undersides. My mother I had swaddled in her quilt just like a baby and now I rolled her into her last, forever bed. She landed face down.
I stood by the edge and looked at the back of her head, white hair splayed across the peaty dirt. Chewing on my lip, I wondered if I should slide in and turn her over. After some minutes I went back into the house and came out carrying the rabbit by its back legs. It landed on the quilt and then slipped down to rest on her left hand side, soft lean body twisted unnaturally. Over them both I threw a handful of dried mugwort and a quail’s egg, fertilised but dead, which landed with an unceremonial dull thud. They were rites of my own composition which my mother had refused to review. I looked at the messy chowder I had made of her burial for some minutes in silence, then sighed as I picked up the spade and began to cover her over.
After the Staring and the burial comes a cleansing, a baptism of sorts. The hissing echoed louder as I approached, walking the path I know as well as my blood knows my arteries. The waterfall fell thick with winter rains. It was November and the trees were useless skeletons of screens as I took off each layer of clothing one by one, each more painful than the last. I muttered as my skin became rough gooseflesh.
“Fucking… couldn’t have gone in July, could she… fucking freezing…”
Wading into the icy pool I felt the cold take bite after bite out of me, through the muscle and tendons and right down to the bone. The water consumed and swallowed; the deeper I went the less of me there seemed to be. I had slipped away from thoughts and pain and was floating in a place neither above nor below myself, somewhere slightly to the side in an overlapping layer of existence. The sound of the crashing water was indiscernible now from the blood rushing in my ears. For a moment death seemed like an inconsequence, of so little importance that I could sway back and forth across the boundary like leaves blowing across a road. Somewhere far away it seemed like I might be dying and undying in an endless loop, while crows circled against the white sky and water closed in over my eyes.
I woke up three days later with no recollection of returning home. I had been horribly sick and my bed sheets were rancid with dried fever sweat. Staggering downstairs I found the front door swinging wide open and the wind blowing twigs and other debris over the front step. When I pushed it shut, a hollow silence fell in the house.
As water boiled for tea I ran my fingers over the red burn-like marks on my arms. My mother had worn, ever since my grandmother died, a long, vaguely crescent-shaped scar on the sole of her foot, sliced on a rock as she climbed from the same waterfall pool I had recently emerged from. I remembered how she used to soak it in warm salted water, how it would reopen periodically and she would tread a line of bloody footprints through the house.
“These bodies,” she would say, “All they do is bleed and ooze, bleed and ooze and creak.”
Outside in the garden, people had been to leave pale shining stones over my mother’s grave, and branches of mistletoe and elder. Behind those gleaming new offerings lay my grandmother and her moss-coated, weather-greyed shrine; behind her lay my great-grandmother, the stones of her memorial now a camouflaged grassy tumulus.
They say the rest of us were washed away in a flood of ash and burning oil, scorched off the surface of the land forever. Here I am alive though, as my mother was before me, as her mother was before her, and the river runs.
Rebecca Parker is a writer-type, picture-taker, occasional illustrator. She recently graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in French and Spanish. Her main areas of interest are mountainous landscapes, poetry that doesn't rhyme, and undermining her femme fatale mystique by wearing a lot of primary colours. You can find her travel blog here.