I may be your mother, but there’s nothing wrong with me enjoying the company of another woman’s daughter. Sometimes, I gaze into your small, tear-glistened face and think you’re just too dumb to understand. Olla’s daughter is alone at night and needs someone to watch her. While sitting with her I often think of you, my own girl—how you lay in your bed like a flung doll. I always leave you honey sandwiches and milk. I put out the stuffed elephant you like to hold. One time I came back and you were crying, “Mommy, mommy,” yet, when I asked what was wrong you were unable to express a single thought. I tried to teach you how to speak, how to talk properly. With Olla’s daughter there’s less trouble, she can count backwards from twenty and recalls all the bedtime stories I tell. It’s not so bad really, it’s not as though I’m one of those awful moms who drinks, beats her kids or slips out on weekends with dangerous men. Anyway, it’s hard to explain what it was like, all those years I spent watching your dark, egg-shaped head looming up between the bars of your crib as though it was a cage and you a wild animal. Now, you’re bigger but the look on your face is just as pained and angry. Olla’s daughter is easier—she has a pleasing demeanor, as they say. I mean, it’s not unhappiness with you or the memory of your father, nothing like that. We all need some peace in life. That’s why I leave the light on for you, the one shaped like a tiny dog. That’s why I keep your tooth in this locket I wear around my neck. Sometimes love is about making do with what we have to offer. One day, when you’re grown I’ll give it back, this small bone-like fragment that fell from the hole in your mouth, that darkness where so much sound comes out: tears, wailing, frustration. When I slip it in your palm again, you’ll be a grown woman, able to handle anything, and the holes will be sealed with new, adult teeth. The darkness in your mouth will be gone by then, I promise. It will seem as though there were never any gaps at all.
Dara Yen Elerath is the author of Dark Braid (BkMk Press), which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2021 Bath Flash Fiction Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in journals such as The American Poetry Review, AGNI, Boulevard, Plume, Poet Lore, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. She received her MFA in poetry from the Institute of American Indian Arts and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Picture by Geran de Klerk (@gerandeklerk)