Many years ago, my mom moved to a tiny island off the coast of BC. At first she stayed in a traditional log cabin. It was really cool, but not really practical, so she bounced around a bit trying to find the ideal house, finally settling on a cozy little one-bedroom rental on the edge of some farmland. It was actually an old blacksmith shop that the new landowners discovered tucked away at the bottom of the pastures and decided to refurbish.
They did an amazing job preserving the original finishings. The floors were wide, creaky wooden planks, the windows inefficient, thin, little-kid-draws-a-picture-of-a-house windows. The bedroom door was a real barn door with a heavy iron latch and the cast iron bathtub had clawed feet. Mom lived with her boyfriend, Ashley. I liked Ashley, but I didn’t spend much time with him because of his work schedule. It was such a small space, but it never seemed too crowded. Ashley was usually at work during the day, and at night I claimed the bedroom: mom and Ashley would stay up watching the Simpsons on the pullout in the living room long after I had gone to bed.
During her time there, mom planted a beautiful garden around the house. The focal point was this old rotten stump that had been completely grown over with morning glory. It reminded me of a story I read where a fairy had dug a burrow in a stump and put her baby inside to incubate, then she wrapped the stump up with morning glory to keep it safe from the deer. Deer never came into the garden, which was a miracle, because the second mom planted anything at any of the other rental properties, those damn deer would be in there to munch it up within a few hours. After living there a few years, the stump had become an ant haven. The ants started venturing into the house, and mom decided that it was time for the stump to go.
I had come to visit for a long weekend. I had the sniffles on Friday, and by the time I woke up on Saturday morning, it had mutated into a pneumonia. We were used to it. Mom started me on my usual regimen of Neocitran, Nyquil, and hashbrowns fried in bacon fat. It worked to keep me laying still until I got back to the mainland for medicine. I went back to sleep shortly after breakfast and woke up in the afternoon to the sound of Ashley leaving for work. I wrapped my blanket around me, took a long pull on the Nyquil bottle, and went out to the garden to keep mom company. She was getting ready to start on the stump, so I sat down at the picnic bench to watch sideways as I rest my head on the table. Mom took a wide grip on the axe, swung back, and brought the blade down hard. Thock. I was mesmerized by the motion blur trailing behind her swing. The morning glory seemed to wilt in the time that it took her to raise the axe to chop again– Clang! The axe nearly ricocheted out of mom’s hands as the stump split down the middle, like a rock. Just like a rock– somehow the stump was totally petrified. Mom tentatively put the axe down and kicked at half the stump, as if she expected ants to come pouring out of it. It was so much worse than that.
A chalky white skull fell out from between the two stump halves. It had been embedded in the stump, as if the stump had been baked around it. Mardi Gras cake-baby. I tried to stifle a coughing fit as mom ushered me back inside the house. She tucked me back into bed and called Brian, the RCMP officer that was stationed to the island. (Little islands like that only got one officer at a time. They’d usually be posted for a 3 year stint, then a new officer would be assigned. The “police station” was a house that had a jail cell in the basement. The thought always terrified me.) I gather that Brian came, looked at the stump, took the skull, and left. He told mom it looked like it was more of an archaeological investigation, but still had some due diligence to take care of.
That night I had fever dreams. Long, tedious, achy dreams about prying up the old wood floorboards and digging out the decapitated bodies underneath. A circle of skinned deer around the perimeter of the garden. Vine-y veins. I woke up parched and listless, but I willed myself to go to the bathroom to get some water. I looked transulcent, like the moon was shining through me. I set the sink running and stuck my face under the tap. Just before the water touched my skin, I woke up, parched.
I had been roused by the sound of Ashley giggling softly. I’d always loved his giggle. Sometimes when he really liked something on TV, he’d rewind it and watch it again and again, giggling until everyone in the room was totally infected with laughter. This must have been one of those times, because his laughter was getting louder, and mom had started laughing, too. The two of them carried on like that, their laughter becoming more and more frenzied every second. I wanted to know what was so funny, so I climbed out of bed and trundled towards the bedroom door. My feet felt like styrofoam. I flipped the latch up– the laughter coming from the living room stopped.
Was I dreaming? Frightened, I stood in the dark with my thumb still pressed down on the latch. I took a deep breath, slid the door open an inch, and searched the darkness fruitlessly as the cold soaked into my skin. Silence. Pitch. I shut the door quietly and clambered back into bed. I told myself that I had only imagined the noise. I was just confused, and sick, and tired. I lay in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin, not wanting to close my eyes, but not wanting to see, either. The wind on the windows. The cats on the roof. The water in the pipes. The sound of laughter stopping. Exhausted and feverish, I eventually fell back asleep.
When I finally woke up on Sunday, Ashley had already left for work. My condition was worsening– my cough was becoming more violent and I barely felt connected to reality anymore. Mom wasn’t in the house, so I bundled up and went into the garden to look for her. I found her sitting cross-legged in front of the stump clutching her axe. The stump was in once piece, swarming with ants, and wrapped tightly with morning glory. Blinkingly, I asked her how she put the stump back together, but she didn’t answer me. She just stood up and took me back to bed. She brought me something hot to drink, tucked me in, and went back outside. I stumbled out of bed to watch her from the kitchen window. Thock. The morning glory winced and fainted. Clang! The stump split. Mom nudged the stump with the axe head, and another milky white skull rolled out of it. Mom threw the axe down and ran back inside as I crumbled into a chair. She called the unanswering RCMP officer over and over again as whatever she put in my drink took me.
I dreamed that I was in the garden. I’d kick the stump, and every time I did, it hinged back, causing a skull to pop out of the earth like a Pez. I dreamed that the bathtub clawed right through the door. Mom wouldn’t let go of the axe. Laughter. I woke up to find my mom standing over me. She told me that I was too sick, that I was going back on the first boat home. She told me that she knew what to do. I asked her about the second skull. She brushed the hair out of my face with her icy cold fingers and pressed her lips against my forehead. I fell back into darkness again.
The next morning I told her that I felt a bit better as she drove me to the ferries and stuck me on the first boat. Dad picked me up on the other side and took me right to the doctor, and I was feeling much better a week later. Before I had a chance to call my mom and ask her about the skulls, Grandma called me to let me know that she and Grandad were helping mom move to the mainland that weekend; Mom and Ashley had broken up, she had quit her job, and we could visit her once she was settled in. It was sudden, and sad, and scary, but we had been through it before, and by now I knew that all I could offer were my loyalty, sensitivity, and support. Now I could add my silence.
Mom was different this time, though. She stopped answering her phone. She stopped having us to visit. When I did finally manage to butt my way in to her house one weekend, she was a different person. Her skin was blistered, and she was skeletally thin. She saw and heard things that weren’t there and she never seemed to sleep. One day my Grandma had me over to tell me that she and Grandad were going to collect my mother, and bring her to live with them. It wasn’t long, though, until they realized that they were not equipped to help her, and my mother was put into the custody of a hospital. I spoke to her team of Doctors once. They asked me questions about how mom used to be, and I told them all the right things. Loyalty, sensitivity, support, and silence. After a while, my mom was released. She seemed better– a lot like herself– but I was afraid that she’d break again, so I never asked her (or talked) about the tiny island off the coast of BC.
I was visiting mom recently and she gave me a small box that she had found inside her closet. She said that she must have picked it up from the hospital gift shop for me during her stay and forgotten about it. I opened the lid. Laid tenderly in their satin-lined compartments were all the pieces of a beautiful, tiny, tea set. The cups were feather light and paper thin.