folding paper

Bernie Groves

I watch my mother’s body grow into a husk. It’s made from the things she’s absorbed over the years, like crumpled drawings depicting a sun and a red house where a family stands in eternal bliss. She cut a strand of my baby hair after I was born and tucked it underneath her skin. She did this with my siblings too, so that the fine hairs peppering the husk are the little hairs she absorbed from us. Over the years, blankets went missing, shoes that no longer fit, ribbons, and clothes with too many holes. 

Admittedly, it’s strange to see my mother inside of a husk.

Over her skin the husk grows into a crisp film, the objects it’s made from having been pounded into muslin. I noticed it a few weeks ago when she Facetimed me for the first time in years saying, “I just needed to hear from you. It’s been too long. I love you.” Her voice is deeper than I remember, more resonant. I humor her the way she humored me when I was a child singing, ‘You are my sunshine.’ I humor her now, saying, “I love you too. Everything okay?” Because that’s what good daughters do, they humor their mothers and shrink underneath them. 

The skin on my mother’s face is brown and tight as fresh leather, but not like when she was younger, before her marriage to my father. Before us. 

“How do you feel, Mom? Sorry I can’t be there.” 

My mother smiles. She only ever smiles to convince others of something. Each smile is a declaration of her contentment, of her glittering health and happiness. “I feel great, sugah. I only eat organic, you know. And I’m on this new weight loss diet, so look out! Don’t be surprised when you see me again. You coming home for Thanksgiving this year?” 

I imagine my mother’s face when she woke up alone this morning and realized she was fifty years old. Because she’s alone, there are no declarative smiles. She’s staring at her naked body in the mirror, a topography of meandering hills and valleys, wondering where the fecund chunks of her life went, desiring to recall them and dissect them underneath a microscope to view the milliseconds within her thirties. Her twenties—she wishes to take a bit of her twenties and hide it underneath her skin, but the numbers float over her eyes and block her vision. Then, she remembers the time I told her to go see an eye doctor a few years ago, and how that devolved into threats and screams about how I’ve never properly cared about her feelings. She told me no; that she can see well enough; that all she needs are glasses from the dollar store, and would I just stop bothering her? The truth is too much for her. Her back is bowed beneath it, she thinks it’s out to get her, so she hides every single age spot; hides the weakened bones, the sagging breasts, the wear of five kids on her vagina and on her skin. She sweeps these away in her mind until the floor is clean, all of it swept against the walls of her mind.

***

“Did you see her?” I ask my husband later. He’s sitting on our couch. His legs are crossed and he’s leaning forward, mashing the buttons of a joystick with furrowed brows. He has a waterfall of jet-black waist-length hair that he always keeps in a messy bun. A few months ago, I helped him shave the sides because he was tired of it constantly pooling into his face, but the sides are growing back now and poke out of his head like grass shoots. Explosions come from the TV screen. 

“See what?”

I stand next to him, arms folded across my chest. “My mother. She looks weird.”

His body relaxes all at once like his body is sighing in relief, then he glances at me. He’s just killed an NPC. “Weird?”

I sit next to him and show him a screenshot I took of her. Her face is partially covered by a translucent, thin film. It looks somewhat stiff and wafer-ish.

“I don’t get it,” he says. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”

I point to the film. “There! You don’t see it?”

He looks at me without saying anything, but he doesn’t have to. We’re at the stage where we can read each other without words. Sometimes, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, I think he’s saying one thing when he’s saying another.

“I can’t believe you don’t see it.”

He shrugs. “I dunno babe. Just see eyes, nose, a mouth. Wrinkles.”

I look closely at her face. The film is borne from the wrinkles, I notice. It grows outward from her face and curls around the back of her head. “She looks so different.”

He’s back to mashing buttons again. “That’s what happens when people get old. When’s the last time you’ve really seen her?”

It was five years ago. He knows that. 

“We’re going for Thanksgiving.” 

He starts laughing then notices I’m not. “But why? I thought you hated her.”

‘It’s the husk,’ is what I want to tell him, but he doesn’t see it. I tell him, “Because that’s what good daughters do. They go to Thanksgiving dinner.”

He looks at me, then shakes his head. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He thinks I’m forgetting the past. “Sure. I guess.” 

I want to show him the husk again and tell him to really look at it, then he’ll understand. But I don’t. I wonder if she sees the husk. 

***

My therapist thinks something good can come from this. I asked him if he thinks I’m folding and he tilted his gray head at me and said, “I don’t know. Are you?” It’s the kind of question he’s fondest of. I tell him I don’t know while I pick at my nails and listen to the roar of traffic outside. “I think this can be a good thing for you,” he says in the silence. “But only if you’re doing it for the right reasons.” 

The husk is the reason, is what I want to say, but he won’t understand. I try rehearsing the explanation in my head first: the husk wasn’t there when I was a child. At least, I don’t remember seeing it then. Maybe it was there all along. But now that it’s out in the open, I need to see her and. . . .

“You both need to communicate,” he offers. “Wounds like these only ever fester.” 

Communication is not something we do.

***

The drive from Chicago to Macon is thirteen hours of mostly two-lane highways through fields of wheat and corn. It’s only the first few hours and the last hour on the road that are most bearable. The hours in between are hellish. It’s during these hours just after sunset, my body stiffened, mind listless, that my husband finally tells me how he feels about my decision to see her. 

I saw signs all day. He thinks that his emotions are just that—his. I’ve told him repeatedly that this isn’t the case with people like me. As a child, reading body language correctly made the difference between eating baloney sandwiches or a hot meal for dinner, going to bed hungry, or going to bed full. I’ve learned not to push, that he will address it when he wants to. 

“I just don’t understand why you’re doing this.” He taps the steering wheel quickly. “You know how it’ll turn out.”

I lean my head against the cool glass of my window. “It’s the husk,” I say. 

“The what?” 

I didn’t mean to say it out loud. I wonder how I can make it sound less crazy, but nothing comes up. “The husk. There’s this husk I need to see. It was covering part of her face.”

He wheezes, a cross between a laugh and a scoff. “WHAT?” He wipes a hand over his face. “Okay. You’re dragging us thirteen hours south to see a husk? A fucking husk? On a woman who’s emotionally abused you?”

The accusation is biting, but he’s absolutely right. I think of my siblings, who, all in their own ways have folded in upon themselves instead of addressing their trauma. Out of their bodies, they make origami and hope that the folds will elide the truth. They hope the unique shapes of their hearts will distract people who get too close; that the folds will conceal the ugliness sticking inside of them. The folds make them forget. It keeps them in a state of constant poise, it gives them grace where there should be anger and smiles where there should be tears. The folds make them love her. I wonder if I’m doing the same, that the desire to see the husk is just my desire to see her. Something in me folds in on itself as I think about that, about loving her in spite of everything. It twists and stabs and there’s an echo of a cry somewhere deep in my throat that sounds like a child’s cry. I tamp it down and continue thinking about it while that something continues to fold.

“What did your therapist have to say about it?” 

***

My mother liked to talk about my breasts whenever she saw me naked as a teenager. 

I used to dress quickly after showering for fear she’d pop in on me and pretend that she didn’t know I was still in the bathroom. Sometimes she found me naked in my room. She’d smile without her eyes and say, “You have nice breasts, but you need to lift five-pound weights every day or else they’ll sag. White women have perky breasts.” And then, “Are yours lopsided? Mine are, so yours might be.”

The fear of sagging breasts. 

The fear of lopsided breasts.

The fear of being black with breasts.

The fear of being a woman. 

The fear of nature.  

All of these, I carefully placed inside of a chest of fears at her direction, my mind an obedient student. One day I had the courage to tell her it made me feel uncomfortable. She said, “Well how do you think it makes me feel to hear you say that?” 

It’s why I can never look directly in a mirror with my clothes off. 


***

I didn’t leave Macon. I escaped it. People leave towns they love. They leave places that are warm and will welcome them back in loving embraces. These are the kinds of places that never ask questions; they never complain, they’re simply happy to have you back. I was never a thought in Macon’s mind, just another cardboard cutout with nowhere to go. I was another cutout destined for the monotony of its hellish nine to fives, destined to have a GED or a bachelor’s that just didn’t quite measure up.

My mother’s house is on the eastern border of town. It’s just twenty minutes from Milledgeville and thirty minutes from Warner Robins. People from out of state don’t know these places, so when I used to live here, I’d say, “Oh, it’s just about an hour south of Atlanta,” or “It’s two hours north of Savannah.” 

Chicago’s acquainted me with overstimulated eyes from driving within tiny lanes riddled with potholes. I’ve grown accustomed to viewing street art at stoplights and from squinting at intricate roadways with five or six-way intersections. There’s an ever-present feeling of occupation in Chicago’s abandoned buildings, a silent promise that everything is being used by someone. The tags left on them are reminders of Chicago’s indelible gang history.

There are no intricate streets with six-way intersections in Macon, most are straight with right angles. There is no politicized art to ponder here, only things of nature to witness in a state of quiet acceptance. Birds that aren’t pigeons take flight across the sky in explosive, feathery rainbows. The sky seems closer here without skyscrapers to push it away, and the pavement is faded and cracked but better treated than back home. The people are faded too and there’s something painful about the way they walk the sidewalks and gather in front of their squat homes. They feel like cardboard cutouts, and it all just feels like a grainy memory from an old movie I saw as a child. The image doesn’t match the energy of my youth or the excitement I felt then. The image is dull, a constant shuffling forward of cars and people with nowhere to go. 

It appears that the town has shrunk, but I wonder if it feels that way because it’s larger in my memories, and in my memories, I’m still a small child. But the town is small; it is lethargic, it is life stuck in a time loop that no one ever deviates from because no one can. Escape is the only way.

***

My mother is standing in the driveway when we pull in. The house sits on a patch of grass sandwiched by two identical houses, all a contrite shade of yellow as if the painters had not been sure if they should go for yellow or beige. I don’t see the husk at first, but then I notice a stray film flickering behind her head. It has moved since I last saw her. A hand clinging to a dishrag rests on her hip and she waves with the other. She’s smiling wide and big and I’m looking at the corners of her eyes and the lines along her cheek to determine if it’s a declaration. 

She’s saying, her good daughter has returned. Her good daughter never wanted to leave her for five years, but job prospects in Macon are not good, so her good daughter left to find work. 

This is the story we’ve agreed to tell. I am the good daughter. She is the good mother. 

“Here we go,” my husband mumbles. He gets out of the car first and makes a show of being friendly, giving her a hug, saying “Yes ma’am,” to her impassioned speech about love, good sons, and good daughters. 

I follow. My legs feel numb and not like my own, and I can’t decide if that’s because of the long car ride or because they haven’t felt this air in so long. Even though it’s November, the weather is warm. There’s no chill in the air like in Chicago which would force us to huddle into our coats and shuffle inside. I miss the chill, I decide. It doesn’t feel right to have my lungs feel warm and moist as grains of sand at the ocean’s edge.

“Oh my god, it’s been so long baby,” she gushes. She enfolds me in a hug and my husband watches on with a small smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. I’m freezing. The sound of her voice, the declarative one that she uses to convince the universe that everything is great, is too loud. It doesn’t send my mind back into the past, but my body goes there. I know this because it’s what my therapist told me occurs in people with trauma. It’s the nervous system, all the knee-jerk feelings, the emotions that are too complex and painful to address.

There’s a tug of war in my brain as I return her hug. Her softness, her warmth. I want to fold into myself and accept the love she offers here, but there’s a part of me that won’t allow it. It sends flashes of memories—of harsh words flung to maim—and warns that it will happen again. It always does. So, I return her hug and force myself to unfold because I cannot trust the soft warmth of her body. My husband looks on silently, and I wonder if he will be a witness to my folding or unfolding.  

***

My siblings are waiting inside the house when I enter. They are perched upon the couches and chairs in flawless poise as only origami can manage. One is a crane, fragile and in danger of shattering. As a thirteen-year-old boy, our mother forced him to eat blackened hot dogs he’d burnt to a crisp. Another is a frog, not as beautifully innocent as the crane, though he once was. The oldest is a spinning top because he’s mastered poise with his unending joviality, the second oldest a boat because as the oldest girl she was responsible for feeding us when our mother couldn’t, for braiding my hair and tying my shoes. They smile wide in unison and I’m buried in arms and scents I haven’t felt or smelled in years. These scents come without harm, only reservoirs of stunted healing and unwiped tears. The spinning top holds me away at arm’s length, taking on the posture of a proud dad because our dad is gone. He ruffles my hair, says, “It’s been too long. Why you aint never come visit?” I give him the same excuse I’ve been using for years, followed by a wistful sigh. The frog scoffs, “Ain’t no way they never give you time off.” Laughter drowns my response and back pats are given, as if to say, it’s okay. We forgive you for leaving. Then dinner arrives on the table and a prayer is said, thanks are given.

The husk is larger at the table. It takes up two seats with its outer edges extending two feet from my mother’s body. It curves inward so that when she looks in a direction, she has to move her body, not just her head. She doesn’t mind, and the husk just wavers slightly with the motion. All the while, she is squinting her eyes behind her glasses. The husk has found a way to grow from her eyelids.

“You should get an eye exam, mom,” I say. 

My mother turns to me, the husk shudders. “I don’t need it. I’ve got glasses.” And then she turns to the spinning top, shakes her head. “She been here for hardly an hour and wants to tell me what to do. Imagine that! Ha! Only this one.” 

The spinning top ‘ha ha’s’ like a father that’s had too much to drink and who’s just come home from work and has to entertain a family he doesn’t understand why he’s created. My husband tries to catch my eye, but I ignore him. I’m staring at the husk clouding her eyeballs, turning them brown instead of white. I am hoping she will listen because I need her to listen. My brain is chanting, ‘Mommy, mommy, mommy, listen. Please. Look. Listen.’ I’m getting folded up. 

“You need an eye exam,” I say abruptly. “Let me take you.”

My mother is displeased. I can tell by the way she blinks her eyes in rapid succession, how her lips go soft, part, then harden. I am the only one that brings something up after she has already made a declaration about it. The chatter eases into silence made up of only clacking forks against ceramic and muted squishing. Pork tendons rip between teeth as soft slop squeezes down throats amidst breathless gurgles and quiet burps. Someone’s breathing heavily. 

My mother takes off her glasses and runs her fingers over the plastic frame before adjusting them. Her fingers brush against the husk and pieces of it fall to the floor like cherry blossom petals in spring. She smiles. She’s decided to be merciful today and needs everyone to know. 

She laughs, high, trilling. “Somebody tell this girl I already got glasses. I’m good.”

The one beside her, the frog, joins her laughter. It’s a snort but sounds like the kind of noise you might hear in the Chattahoochee after rainfall. “She good. Worry ‘bout yo’self.” 

Another snort comes from the end of the table, the crane. Of all her creations, the crane is the most poised, the second to prostrate themselves after the frog. It’s a game of dominoes, my mother laughs, frog and crane laugh, then boat and the spinning top until all of her creations are laughing and I’m laughing too.

“Yeah. True, true.” I continue laughing even as I’m hating myself for it and even as she’s squinting hard at the text that frog is showing her. He’s telling her to look at what so-and-so said about this and what he said in response. She is leaning in close in an attempt to absorb the letters from the text, similar to how she’s learned to absorb life. She’s thinking that letters will just come to her as the years just came to her, as we, her children just came to her. 

She’s so close to my brother that the husk swallows him and takes his place. No one else notices his phone clatter to the floor or his silverware slip from his plate. They don’t notice his voice being sucked into a void. The husk gurgles and shudders, then grows thin, translucent arms that reach toward boat next. As it’s grabbing at her arms, boat continues to eat. She doesn’t understand why her fork is trembling or why tears are falling down her face. She continues eating even as the husk engulfs half of her body. 

I turn to my mother whose eyes are one shade of brown, the same brown as the husk now that it has claimed her eyes too. Flakes of it twirl to the floor and crowd the table and from where they fall, a newly formed film appears. The husk is twice the size it was before dinner, having engulfed frog and now most of boat.  

“Thanks for dinner,” I say, getting up from the table. I give an excuse about my husband’s upset stomach. I tell her we’ll meet her for coffee in the morning because that’s what good daughters do, and I don’t know how not to be one. 

The husk shudders its response and by the time I’m out of the door, it’s the only thing at the table. It’s taking up all the chairs, but my mother doesn’t seem to notice. She goes on eating her fried collard greens. I can’t tell if she’s laughing or crying when I shut the door and walk down the porch steps into the night. When we’re back in the car and the headlights are shining through the dining room window, I realize she’s laughing, and the husk is gone. 


Bernie Groves is a bipoc writer currently working toward an MFA at Columbia College. She travels whenever she can and often visits China with her spouse.  She has work forthcoming in Daastan World Magazine and has been published in Mask Lit Magazine, Literary Yard, and others. Her work has also been included in an anthology published by Clarendon Publishing House, Inc. Bernie lives in Chicago with her spouse and their cat named Mouse.

Image Credit: Kathy M. Bates