BY CHARITY YOUNG
Recipient of the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose
Princeton University, ’20
Selected by Allegra Hydej
When Mother contracted the virus, she had a villa built in Sabratha, Libya, where Roman ruins and human bones lay desolate by the sea. Her doctor estimated that the virus would lie dormant in her body for a year before it entered the replicative phase, at which point it would shut down all cognition. If she stayed in Manhattan he was legally obliged to euthanize her; if she went abroad to a quarantined country she would exist as a thoughtless vessel for a week or two, seeking out human flesh to consume and infect, and then a UN peacekeeper would kill her.
Libya was the homeland of both Mother’s great-grandfather and the strain of Caspian terns from which the virus originated. Mother claimed she wanted to die in the country of her roots, though she knew nothing about Libyan culture and it was too late now, anyway, as the disease had eradicated three-quarters of the population. It was really the romance of the situation that drove her: not many infected Americans could afford to waste away at a marble villa overlooking the Mediterranean, where the creatures bearing their disease wheeled dramatically, but Cyrene Laurentides refused to accept anything less.
All this remained on my mind throughout my junior year at Columbia. Mother would visit from her midtown apartment whenever I managed to forget, as though she could monitor how often I thought of her and wanted to maintain a baseline urgency. I tried not to let this depress me. Most of my friends had died from infection, or if they possessed a natural immunity like I did, they ended the term with summer internships at Goldman (“Why—what does the financial sector matter now?” declared Mother) or went on world tours before the clusters of quarantined countries metastasized further. I told them my summer plans were to shoot my mother before a peacekeeper could, wrap her body in the finest white silks, and sink it in the blue, blue sea.
“Rhode, you lucky bastard,” my roommate Cole said. “I want to die in Sabratha.”
I kind of thought nobody in Columbia minded death in general. Since the virus hit New York it was the working class who had raised alarm—the overeducated already fretted about death on a vague hourly basis, but when it arrived they stared at it with drugged boredom. This probably had to do with Maslow’s: survival lay within reach for people who wanted it but self-actualization did not.
“I mean, it’s not me who’s dying,” I said.
“At least you’re going to be there—do all the rites, man, isn’t it like Carthage or something, pray to all the gods, burn her up like Dido—”
“Mother thinks cremation is trite.”
“Oh come on, write a play. Cyrene loves that stuff.”
Cole flirted with Mother every time she visited; I let him because his own had died last year. He made me wonder whether I should spoil Mother before we went to Sabratha or grieve.
For a while, the whole trip seemed like another one of Mother’s fictitious schemes. Yet, come April, every morning, she forwarded me progress pictures of the villa’s construction that the contractor provided. I watched its glittering neoclassical ribs rise alongside the ruins, grand bordering on graceless as though self-conscious of their own novelty; watched the Lorrain dawns rush over replicas of the marble Merlions Mother had admired in Singapore, and the Mughal cupolas burn golden—thinking this hopelessly appropriated, international monstrosity was a collection of everything she had seen and loved; a child’s playhouse, really.
Instinctively I wanted to protect her from all the rot and sadness in the world, which never cared about the Libyan bodies buried beneath her ridiculous villa, and tell her she was a fool. Tell her to stay a fool if she could.
A portrait: Cyrene and Rhode Laurentides, real useless socialites, shopping for ramen at Hmart. We needed to buy food for our week in Sabratha because most of the restaurants in that area were either deserted or too far away. I would be the only one eating.
Out of habit, she picked up a lobster-flavored pack and checked its nutrition facts, silently mouthing the conversion of kilojoules to calories (Mother had been a physics major; see what became of that)—for someone who consumed a lot she ingested very little, only hungry for things she couldn’t have. You wouldn’t know from seeing her. She wasn’t one of those mothers who overlined their brows and bought oversized Birkin bags; she resembled a French indie-rock singer, with her square cheekbones and brunette bangs, buttery leather clothes, and mobile mouth.
She slipped her arm through mine and we went to the register. I found the cashier attractive in the twinkish way of Spider-Man actors. He scanned the packs of ramen and said in a translucent voice, “That’ll be $20.09, please,” barely moving his lips as though embarrassed to speak. I wondered why. His throat was a flute. I imagined him singing—I imagined the notes rising and thinning with the altitude until they vanished entirely above the sewage and engine fumes of Manhattan. The future passed my mind briefly. I might fall in love and Mother would not be in the aisle.
In Sabratha, we spent our afternoons watching the cerulean sea pulse with summer and tiny shimmering fish. Mother liked the black-capped Caspian terns—they played games with each other, she informed me, and had families just like us.
“I’m not exactly sure whether I’ll go crazy this week,” said Mother over champagne on the first evening. “Even though the virus has started replicating, the doctor said it could take up to two weeks to take over.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Have some ramen.” The pack came with a little foldout fork; I offered her a dripping, curly bite.
“Hey—I’m trying not to drag this out.”
“It’ll kill you faster,” I soothed.
She laughed and took the bite, then another.
“The thing about ramen is that it’s much more bland than you expect,” she remarked, chewing. “You think it’s going to have all this flavor and you desperately try to taste it—then you wonder if you’ve got a cold, or something.”
Mother and I talked a lot. I had brought my Canon so I took pictures of her waking up, bathing, feeding the terns, reading, drinking, smoking. I uploaded about sixty pictures a day to Instagram, where I had forty thousand followers, and captioned them “ramen detox and chill?” and “death week! :)” I lost about five thousand followers in thirty-six hours but did not care. I supposed this was a kind of 21st-century mental breakdown. Cole texted me one night—
HIM: hey man how’s Sabratha
ME: oh it’s great, it’s so gorgeous
HIM: I hope you’re having a good time
ME: I locked myself in my room all of yesterday and browsed memes while supergluing tiny googly eyes all over my body
ME: I also took the seasoning sachets from each of the ramen packs and made a sand castle out of MSG
ME: I thought it was monday but it’s actually tuesday and I left mother all alone
HIM: fun. oh you should do something nice for her
ME: like what
HIM: write a poem idk
ME: well cole you know my texts are literature but whenever I actually try to write literature it just looks like a text
HIM: haha I mean you could send her a text
HIM: that’s what I did when my mom was dying
HIM: she emailed me “cole I’m dying” and I texted her a poem
ME: I’m kinda panicking
HIM: I still have it if you want to use it
ME: I’m like tweaking out on something
HIM: hey don’t worry man, it’ll all be over soon
HIM: I mean life
HIM: we will all be dead so soon and our lives and troubles meaningless
ME: thanks cole
Mother and I got intoxicated on all sorts of colorful things. At night we lay in the enormous bathtub built into the edge of the top balcony, swirling with crimson salt, and drank as much liquor as we could; took as many pills as we wanted. She talked about her financial successes and sexual exploits. Sometimes we pressed our foreheads together, and the shores of Sabratha before us turned to oil paint beneath my closed lids: a hybrid of Panini’s capriccios and the moonscapes of van der Neer. Mother said we were celebrating the life she had lived. Said this was just a blurred, grand, condensed version, with the stars and ruins and me.
Over time her speech degraded, imperceptibly at first and then with a sudden drop. She stopped mentioning the places and names that were fundamental to her charm, her promise of indulgence as a mode of existence. By the fourth day she had shed all self-consciousness entirely, and her stories changed from melancholic adventures to the time it was Christmas and storming and nobody could visit so she binge-ate the whole ham alone. I was startled. I knew Mother was sad but assumed it was at least in part an act.
“Mother,” I said on the fifth day, “you’re growing fractious.”
She was scooping out the lint of her belly button with a little stick; it gathered into a tiny blue-green ball.
“I’m gonna leave Earth a loser,” she complained. “I’m a small-time slut wearing dead animals. Wouldn’t you be fractions?”
She frowned as though knowing this was the wrong word, but the lint only rolled off her stomach. I put it back on and her expression eased.
“You’re a big-time slut,” I assured her. “You did my English professor, right? He’s a Nobel laureate.”
“English—he wasn’t even rich.”
“You couldn’t have known at the time. It was after that Yule bash.”
“I’m a wash-up. I built my fortune on inheritance and sugar.”
“An honorable profession!” Rhode Laurentides, sex-positive modern man. “You’re a muse, like Pattie Boyd.”
Mother groaned and rubbed her eyes hard; she never used to rub them hard because she hadn’t wanted wrinkles. “Sometimes—I just go weeks—doing nothing. Muses are twenty-somethings and I’m nothing.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be dead soon.”
I meant to say this lightly but it came out completely monotone. While once Mother would’ve nodded sagely, now a wildness entered her expression. The lint rolled off again.
“You won’t miss me,” she accused. “You’re gonna forget all about me.”
“That’s not true.”
“Whenever I visit you’re always busy—I tell people all the time I have a son at Columbia, I’m paying your entire tuition—”
“Mother, you’re being a child. Does Cole bother you?”
“No, Cole is sweet.” She paused. “He’s handsome.”
That evening she stopped refusing ramen. I offered her a forkful and she ate it without question, then steadily consumed the rest of my bowl. As she lost the ability to converse at an average level I decided that she had been right to create this Frankenstein villa in Sabratha; it was a good place to embrace deterioration as a way of life, surrounded by beauty and private debauchery and terns teeming in little murders.
Sometimes I grew irritated with her. She simpered and forgot to put on clothes in the morning, or if she did it was inside out and I had to help her. She cowered when I drunk-laughed too loudly, so I stopped drinking and made her stop, too. I experimented with her name—Cyrene, Artemis, Kyre—because slowly I was failing to recognize the Mother I knew, but I could never bring myself to call her anything else.
By the ninth day she couldn’t form words, and though she would eat what I offered she didn’t seek out food, either. The doctor had said this was the point at which she would begin to turn feral; then she had a week at most until I had to shoot her.
“Mother,” I said—I still talked to her, though she couldn’t understand— “are you afraid?”
It was noon and we had just woken up; I was reading her Dostoevsky’s short stories in bed.
“Look here: I suddenly felt that it would make no difference to me whether the world existed or there was nothing anywhere—you shouldn’t be afraid. The guy in this story dreams about a Greek utopia. We’re only ever passing from one idyll to the next.”
Mother stared at the book, glassy-eyed. I imagined this was out of existential anxiety. My heart turned, though of course she didn’t feel a thing.
“Don’t envy me—there’s nothing for me.”
Oh, I was getting romantic.
“People say you should read stories to babies in the womb,” I said. “Also plants, they say the same thing about plants. You can’t possibly be worse off than a ficus.”
I continued reading.
When we reached the part about the Greek utopia, she began to keen. It was a constant, high-pitched sound that sounded at first like a mosquito, then picked up volume.
“Oh, do you not like this part?” I put the book on my lap and an arm around her shoulders. She smelled of roses and a fresh bath. “Shh, it’s just a story. Shh. I can stop reading if you want.” Her mouth dropped open and the keening grew still louder, like she had opened the door to a tiny person screaming inside.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” I said. “Do you want some water?”
She turned to gaze at me or a little beyond me, uncomprehending.
“Are you hungry?”
For an instant the keening paused. Then she reached out and grabbed my right arm—hefted the weight of the bone and muscle, examined its length and the structure of my hand. Her fingers lit and relit on my skin like evening insects.
Her teeth closed around my arm. I cried out, yanking it back, and jumped off the bed. I was more startled than injured; she hadn’t drawn much blood.
I took the shotgun out of the dresser, somehow feeling that it should bear more significance than it did. As the keening turned to wails, I felt rather like I was dealing with an orphaned forest animal and thought, this is my mother, and then: how feeble.
Her lips parted and I took another step back, wielding the gun kind of listlessly because I knew there wasn’t a real chance I could bring myself to use it. At last Mother mouthed, with enormous effort:
She got off the bed and gazed at me vacantly. I rummaged in my suitcase and offered her a pack of ramen, but she turned away from it and reached again for my arm.
“No, Mother,” I said, gently so she might understand. “I’m going to become a lawyer.” I wondered why this mattered. “I need to use my arm for things.”
Mother came nearer. She picked up my arm, and this time I let her take a real bite.
ME: hey cole
HIM: whats up
ME: well first of all sorry if I’m typing slow
ME: I lost my right hand
ME: fortunately I am left handed
HIM: wtf lol
HIM: like for real?
ME: I mean I didn’t pLAn on it or anything
HIM: wait how
ME: mother was rlly hungry
HIM: wait so you just
HIM: fed it to her
ME: yeah I’m sitting in the bathtub and I just woke up I think I went into shock or something
ME: but it’s fine the bleeding stopped
ME: I snapchatted u
HIM: omg wow ok you don’t play around man
HIM: like. you could’ve just
HIM: sent her a poem
ME: yea I know but I was like why not
ME: cole I think I’m depressed
ME: I can’t believe I fed mother a body part
ME: somehow I feel like this is a white person problem
HIM: lmao yeah yall keep inventing new struggles
I put down my phone and for a moment gazed at myself in the mirror. I took a picture and captioned it “amputee looks,” then got back into bed with Mother to finish reading the story.
The next afternoon I did research on how to perform an at-home amputation properly. By the time she woke up I had prepared dinner for Mother with my left hand, my right arm now entirely missing. I woke her up, dressed her, and made her eat with me on the checkerboard patio. I felt lightheaded. Underlit by the low Mediterranean sun. “You see these irrational shadows,” I told Mother dreamily. “They’re so long. Like a de Chirico.” The marble animals around me smiled at the horizon. I spooned my ramen and watched her flesh envelope mine, her flesh and teeth, and I called myself Christ and smiled too because I mattered to Mother in that moment more than ever.
In the following days I rationed out my legs slowly (really I should’ve started with them; they were long and dispensable)—I was determined for Mother to live as long as I could help. Vaguely I considered life afterwards as a quadriplegic, but I knew I didn’t have the heart or survival instinct. I was one of those college students who jaywalked without looking because if I got into a car accident I could postpone my final. There would be no life afterwards for me, I realized, as I chopped off the end of my patella—sometimes my vision grayed from pain and blood loss but I didn’t want to be alive to watch Mother die.
And I wondered if this was love or something more shallow. When I was young I only ever wanted Mother to pay attention to me, but once I left for boarding school she considered me her best male friend and it wasn’t the same way I wanted her to want me, somehow. She would call me in the middle of her soirees regardless of whether I had class to tell me, “Jennifer is being such a Pisces right now” or “I thought Luca was into BDSM so I was like okay, I’m not fussy, but then he suggested that I wear a foxtail and I told him, ‘there’s my limit, Herr.'” I grew to adore the idea of her more than anything. There had always been that irrevocable distance. Mother told people that she had a son at Columbia recruited for swimming, majoring in mathematical economics and planning for law school. She showed them pictures of me with boys and girls, said I was busy but a real mama’s boy, and I think she adored the idea of me, too.
I stopped keeping track of time, stopped looking in mirrors or taking care of myself. I lay in bed with Mother from dawn to noon and then performed her daily feeding; afterwards I was too exhausted to move so I would get back in bed with her. We stared at the ceiling. I spent those days in a haze of pain and filth. We were both filthy—there was no way for either of us to shower, and the best I could do was help her defecate in the glass bowl that once held iridescent betta fish. Like a domesticated tiger, she allowed me to direct her as long as I kept her fed.
We devolved to different minds of depravity then. I uploaded pictures to Instagram of my severed limbs spilling over the pan, Mother crouching naked with the food, our shit piling softly in the fishbowl like a progression of modern art. I made sure to capture the breathless beauty of Sabratha in the background and include the captions: “gotta keep grinding—your flesh!” and “shit’s getting real in paradise.” My follower count jumped to an all-time high of two hundred thousand.
One day, a newspaper reached out to me for a Skype interview. The journalist asked me why I used Instagram and I said, “I am immortal on the Internet.” She wanted to know if I was making some sort of social statement. I said, “Well, you know, people are curious about the true lives of wealthy uptowners. So if I have any message to the world, it’s that nobody is perfect. Though we may have built this fabulous mansion by the Mediterranean that cost us more than the GDP of a small country, we still feel depressed sometimes. We still feel conflicted over the state of American politics. We still cannibalize each other. We still have family arguments—and I believe that’s the appeal of reality TV.” At this point I was high on Vicodin and I think the journalist could tell.
At last, when Mother finished consuming both my legs, I decided that I loved her after all. We had very calmly gone feral without speaking—in agony, giddy on the silence—and I forgot to loathe my half-eaten body when the sunlight cast streamers on our bed and burnished her legs long and wild gold. My body had become Mother’s touchstone in this big bright villa, and I was pretty sure this was love, looking at her working jaws and thinking: I want to be wanted to be wanted to be wanted.
She wanted my left fingers. She wanted my left hand, left forearm. Our bed was soaked crimson like that of the really crazy Italian businessman Mother fucked on her period last year, which she texted me all about during my French midterm.
There lay the residue of Rhode and Cyrene Laurentides: among layers of imported marble and imagination, and ruins, ruin upon ruins.
The archeologists would analyze the villa’s remains and call it a shrine or mausoleum. In the center—a female skeleton curled up in her burial room, the space of her stomach full of human bones. They would not know those bones belonged to a boy who wanted to shrink and fit entirely. They would not know he was born a fish in her womb and wanted to return home.
Overhead, the terns would wheel—no more significant than anything else in the world.
Charity Young is a rising sophomore at Princeton University, originally from Camas, Washington. Her fiction has previously appeared in the Adroit Journal.
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