From the author: In a city where the underground Metro line crosses paths with the River Styx, a mother tries to suffer for her sins, while her daughter carries the baggage. There are many intersections on this line, between madness and ghosts, memory and hallucination, love and fanatical devotion. CW: mental illness, grief, suicide
Mama pulls my hair again, her phantom fingers tangled around my mind. I wince at the sudden memory: me on a chair with tears in my eyes, her with the comb. She yanks it through the tangle until it rips from my head with a lurch and the steely scream of the Metro's brakes. I grab the bar to keep from falling. The doors unfold, ejecting evening commuters. A seat opens up so I slide in, glad for the chance to sit. I scratch at my hat, trying to scrape the memory away.
"Enough. I get it." I speak to myself, my mother's soul listens. Passengers eye me suspiciously. I fake it, "I have to hang up now." I reach under my hat, like I'm tapping an earbud.
Mama wants my attention. She tugs my hair, this time on the left side. I turn to look. Two women sit together, shapeless in bundled coats, their heads wrapped in scarves. It's hard to tell if they're religious, or just cold. Men stand silent, their earbuds insulating them from the world. Three white girls huddle together, entranced by their phones, their conversation carried on the ping of chimes.
None of them are the right person. Mama knows who it is, but they aren't here yet. How? Some instinct, some vision, maybe. The dead know more than they let on. I try not to think about what I do for her, or I might question why she still needs me. I promised to take care of her until the last stop, but she keeps getting back on this damned train.
New arrivals shuffle in, their faces closed and tired. The Metro lurches forward, rocks us with its comforting rhythm, then screeches to a halt. The crowd spills out, more file in to fill their places. I keep my seat. Whomever we await will appear in the space between me and the door to the next car.
I hear Mama's voice reciting her litany, see her head bent over in prayer. Domine, Miserere nobis. The light of the votive candle flickers over her withered face. When I look up, I see that same light reflected in the face of a middle-aged woman standing in the aisle.
This is the one. The woman rides for two stops. I give her a comfortable lead as I follow her out, becoming just another commuter trying to get home.
We make our way up from the fluorescent underworld of echoing tile and the whispers of a thousand shuffling feet. Cars splash through icy slush, driving slow on the slick road. We creep along treacherous sidewalks, picking the safest path.
In the shadow of the looming storefronts, the sidewalk becomes the hall in our old apartment. I tiptoe around the dusty trash piled against the walls, scuttling with the sound of insects. If I go slowly, she won't hear me pass her door, won't make me come in and pray with her. She begs God for mercy, but screams to me that only pain will purify our sins. A car on the street blares a warning, and the memory slips on an icy patch of sidewalk.
Mama is anxious, her litany threads through my thoughts. Ex tristitia diu maneat, Domine, libera nobis. People on the street stare at me. I'm not sure if I'm praying aloud, or if it's just Mama's memory flickering like a candle on her altar.
When we reach the intersection at Bulwark and Carver, Mama grabs the back of my hair and yanks it hard. I slide on the ice and lurch for a street sign for balance. The woman in front of me keeps walking. The icy metal of the pole sears through my gloves, and I bury my face in the crook of my arm. Mama knows what's coming. I refuse to watch. I've seen it too many times.
For a moment, I'm at Mama's bedside, my hands clenched around the cold bars of the hospital bed rail. I lean to kiss her cheek, rest my forehead against hers. She made me promise to stay with her until the end, ever the dutiful daughter.
I open my lips to whisper goodbye. Her mouth falls open, her last breath rushes into me, ashes and sorrow and darkness, searing my lungs. Clinging to the rail, I fall back, coughing. Ab omni malo, Domine, libera nobis.
I hear her voice, "You were always my favorite, Jeannie."
The heart monitor shrills in my memory. It becomes the sound of glass shattering and the crunch of metal on metal. Car horns and shouts tell me that it's safe to look. A delivery van and a car sit tangled at the intersection, steaming radiator fluid and furious drivers.
The body of the woman from the train lies a few steps away. I slide to my knees and crawl through the filthy slush until I reach her side. Blood pools beneath her head. The light in her eyes is gone. My mother is never wrong. Ex tenebræ horribiles, Domine, miserere nobis.
Someone shouts. I look up and point at the man. "Call Emergency! Now!" He fumbles for his phone. I shout, "I'm starting CPR!"
The curtain is up on the theater of the dead.
I pull off my gloves, tilt her head back, and pinch her nose. Bending over her, I crook my hand beneath her jaw and open an airway. My scarf falls down to cover her face from view.
My mouth hovers over hers, a scant space of air between us. There is a wisp of breath from her lungs, forced out by my weight on her body. I breathe out. My mother's soul pours from my throat like smoke from a burned-out candle. Cold air fills my lungs and I'm free of her. She rushes into the body beneath me, and I feel the flutter of eyelashes under my hand.
"Mama, please..." I whisper. "You need to let go."
"Life is pain." She answers. A terribilis flentes, ac lugentes, Domine, libera nobis.
"You're dead, Mama."
I sit up, tearing at the coat to find her breastbone. I start compressions, feel the thick crunch of broken ribs against my hands. No amount of pain will wash away the things she won't let me forget. I pound every sin and sorrow that she heaped on my shoulders into the chest of the dead woman. A crowd gathers around, watching the spectacle. The dead woman smiles. I count thirty compressions aloud, then bend to her lips again.
"Go be with your God, Mama. There's nothing left for you here. Let me go."
"Ungrateful girl." She wheezes. "Honor thy father and mother, that your days may be long--."
"I can't!" My voice comes out like a plea for help, "I can't do this anymore."
She knows she's right. I've tried to leave her behind, drop the burden of her sins and her penance, but she always finds me. If I walk away now, she will follow, slip back down my throat like a cloud of diesel exhaust and disappointment.
In this moment of freedom from her, I decide. We need to get back on the train. I tuck the thought away and hope she won't find it. I mime the compressions again. How can I push life into this heart beneath my hands when my own breath killed her?
The people around me crowd closer. I snarl at them to either get back, or take over. They back away. No one wants to get their hands dirty. Mine are covered in blood.
The wail of a siren creeps down the street. This is Mama's last moment. I bend to her mouth, all pretense of rescue dropped, and inhale the bitter taste of my mother's soul once more.
Getting to my feet is tricky on the slick sidewalk. When I turn back toward the Metro station, the crowd shies away. The ambulance pulls up and I break into a stumbling run. No one stops me.
"God, have mercy on us!" I mumble and lurch my way, block by block, back to the station. My Metro card slides into the slot on the turnstile. I leave it there, smeared with blood.
"From long-enduring sorrow, Lord, have mercy on us!" The worn tiles of the station corridor echo with my voice. All I see is the flicker of a candle behind red glass.
My mother's voice joins mine. "From all evil, Lord, deliver us,"
"From horrible darkness, Lord, have mercy on us." I step methodically down a set of stairs, unsure of which direction I'm going. It makes little difference—we just have to get back on the train.
This is not the time of day for departing commuters, and for that, I'm grateful. I stand alone at the edge of the tunnel, waiting for the rush of air like a ghost waiting for her ferryman. I'm not afraid of shouting. There's no one to hear.
"From dreadful weeping and wailing! Lord, have mercy on us!" When the words leave my mouth, Mama shrieks. She knows. Her furious memory slaps my face.
The rumble of the train echoes down the tunnel and a gust of cold air hits my face. I raise my voice and scream, "Get back on the train you hateful bitch!"
This is the last stop. The brakes scream, steel on steel, and I make my departure.
This story originally appeared in See the Elephant Issue #3 from Metaphysical Circus Press.