My mother forced the bread into her mouth. She devoured the tip of each loaf as I pulled them out of the oven. The tip, being closest to the oven’s opening, had had some time to cool, though it was still moist and steaming like a body. It was by pure luck that this batch had not been eked out with chalk, as I sometimes did in those days to please her with news of unexpected profit. I figured the lowliest buyers would accept the half-eaten loafs, as I had got away with selling the leftovers of mice before. My dread grew as I watched Mother eat.
‘Ale,’ she demanded, placing her hand on the table before me. Her tongue was so swollen from the bread that the word went wet and slippery between her teeth.
I gave it to her, nauseous. My brains had been beating me from within my skull all night. Images climbed behind my eyes, nestled there, fondling each other. It was the chaos of the Aberdeen streets dwelling in me, mingling with my own quick imaginings. Yellow dung. Curly fingernails. Ripped-off arms in leather gauntlets. A townhouse made of teeth. The night before, my dreams had shown me the slaughter of James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn, a recent event at that time, the king’s men sinking their knives and teeth in him while his own teeth fell to the ground like rain. Such images rose and sunk inside my mind, put there by some cruel outside force.
‘I shall fetch the priest,’ I said. My jaw shook between every word from the effort of not spilling any of my insides on the table. ‘It is time.’
‘She can wait ’til morning,’ Mother insisted. ‘I will not have you go out after dark for the sake of a fanciful crone.’
I rose carefully and walked across the room. Her words had stirred images of church bells racking open, sailors drowning in puddles, ears, noses and mouths bleeding in black. Shrill bells rang in my ears. There had to be a priest. A priest must be found. The bed held my grandmother tenderly. Her eyes, black as water, greeted me in her teeth’s absence. She had appeared at the door in her time of need, extending her trust to Mother and me the way market women handed over their purses for me to take out what they owed.
‘Your girl has a trustworthy face,’ they would say to Mother, and she would shine.
Placing myself on a stool, my back hiding us from Mother, I looked for sweet images inside my head to share with Grandmother. My stomach moaned, though I was neither hungry, nor full.
Grandmother told me to pinch the skin on the back of her hand, then my own.
‘See,’ she told me. ‘My skin stays in the shape you made it. Only slowly is it letting itself fall back on my bones. Yours is smooth and fast, never waiting for permission to hug you tightly. You will live for many years to come.’
‘Be quiet,’ Mother screamed with her swollen tongue. ‘I will not have your voice in my house tonight.’
‘I will need my voice for my final confession,’ Grandmother said, to which Mother said nothing.
‘I am glad you came,’ I whispered to her. ‘Now I will see your face before me when I say your name in prayer. For as long as I live, I will do so.’
‘Maeve,’ Mother called. ‘Maeve, come to me.’
Little men made of rust and sooth tried to climb up my throat. I stood up. I walked across the room to where Mother was resting her heavy thighs. She patted them and looked at me like she had done when I was young enough to think her wise.
I shook my head.
‘You will not disobey,’ she said. ‘Come sit with your mother.’
She placed me on her lap and rocked me back and forth as though I was a newborn babe. I have not known a woman since whose delight is so directed towards control, whose anger is such bottomless chaos.
‘Mother,’ I mumbled. ‘I beg that you let me fetch a priest for her.’
Her rocking made my stomach moan again. Little white limbs moved before my eyes.
‘That bitch,’ she whispered in my hair. ‘That bitch. Come to die in my house and turn my girl away from me. You know not what she’s done to me, Maeve. May you never know.’
She began to feed me spoonfuls of beer foam, pieces of dry meat, a sour apple meant for ale-making. Her tenderness was cruel. I shook my head from side to side but otherwise remained as I was. My brain produced images of human bodies crushed within small animal cages, reddish necks with blueish thumb-sized prints, shiny fisheyes moving with the speed of my feet. A small and salty burp rose from my stomach to my tongue.
Mother, eating, eating, eating.
Grandmother, dying, dying, dying.
I forced myself to fall asleep in her arms. My dreams came to me in short, breathy dog bites that had me twist and turn. I awoke briefly when Mother put me on the floor and moved away into the night’s blackest hours. There were whispers then, and I watched as my brains turned them into flashes of hellfire. Grandmother burned inside the flames with her mouth wide open, hissing, looking with empty fisheyes for someone willing to hear her final confession. The hissing turned to wailing, screaming, cursing, all in Mother’s voice.
I sat up as I recognised my mother’s grief. The faint candlelight exposed her shaking shoulders as she threw herself on Grandmother’s chest and beat it with tired arms.
‘You bitch, ’ she moaned. ‘Mother. Why must you die in peace? Beautiful deaths should come to those who are deserving.’
She recognised her mother’s final breaths, I thought. I did not, for I could not separate her suffering from her dying. Mother, seeing that I was awake, called me forward to help her divide insults evenly across Grandmother’s body. I looked at the dark waves of her eyes, pained by Mother’s wrath, and it pleased me that she would soon be clutching peace between her swollen fingers. Mother’s curses fell across Grandmother’s egg-shaped breasts, reciting tales from many years ago when justice and injustice were administered by those who had since grown weak and grey. This was when Grandmother had been like some tyrant devouring Mother’s every thought, absorbing her fears and feeding them to her in unexpected ways. She had surely shrunk and lost all that cruelty many years ago, but Mother was blind to this.
‘I will fetch the priest, ’ I whispered, faint from watching beheaded hens circle their heads behind my eyes.
My grandmother gave me a last look of trust. The shame was numbing my fingers and toes. Then, with a deep and ever-growing burp, I spilled my belly’s contents in her hair.