by James R. Gapinski
When the doctors finally released Mum, she was different. Little horns protruded from her forehead; she reeked of sulfur; her fingers twisted into spindly talons; she spoke gibberish and coughed up little plumes of smoke; if we left her wheelchair too close to a mousetrap or roach hotel, she’d eat the ensnared pests. They must’ve mixed up the charts. That’s not Mum, Abby said. But I wasn’t so sure. Mum’s eyes were the same, with the same reddish glow that I remembered during bedtime stories. There was this one story about a bear and a mouse who were friends, and something about the moon losing its moonlight, and the bear and mouse had to search the forest for a replacement light. I don’t remember exactly how it all worked out, but I know for sure that it ended with the moon getting its light back—most kid’s books have happy endings like that.
I pushed Mum’s wheelchair into the bedroom while Abby telephoned doctors and nurses. I wiped some drool from Mum’s mouth; I dabbed pus away from her horns. We’ll get you healthy, I said. Mum replied with some more gibberish. I jotted down a few of Mum’s better-enunciated words, though most were too quick and guttural for transcription. I tucked Mum into bed, set water on the nightstand, and took her temperature—still rising despite hourly ice baths. Once Mum was asleep, I searched for some of her gibberish on the internet. I got a few hits in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew. The words rain and blood and murder and terror pinged back. There was also one hit for love, so I took that as a good sign.
By morning, Abby had shifted her efforts from doctors to priests, and by midday she convinced one to make a house call. The priest said I’ve seen this before. I’ll have your mother up and about in no time. Mum screamed and spat bile onto his vestments. The priest held out his Bible. Mum began speaking English for the first time since her release. Sinner, charlatan, deceiver, she shouted, pointing at the priest. Then she began listing names and locations and dates. The priest ran from the house and kept going. Abby sat in her car cried for a while.
I wheeled Mum into the living room and turned on one of those midday judge shows, like “Judge Judy” but with less yelling. I brushed her hair, and I asked Mum, do you remember the story about the bear and the mouse? Do you know how they got a new light for the moon? Mum nodded and said something unintelligible—it sounded more like pained moaning than a language.
Abby began looking up rabbis and Buddhist monks while a light bulb popped in the kitchen. Mum smiled. Some mouse entrails were caught in her front teeth. I got a toothpick and worked some of the guts away from her gum line. It was like a role reversal of childhood mac-n-cheese nights, back when Mum used to inspect my teeth after every third bite. I kissed Mum’s warm forehead and placed my hand in hers. I stroked her bony fingers and said The moon will be bright again soon. I promise.