Dead Mother, Live Mother
The first night, she wears my mother’s face. Now, my brother’s, my son’s, my daughter’s. Of course, I know, she is none of them. They are far away. Each night after, she emerges from the damp wood. She stands ten steps from my trailer’s mold stained door, wearing faces both forgotten and pined after. She is my high school sweetheart, my ex-husband, my first. In each guise, I know her kiss, and in each guise her lips hold the same waterlogged density and marshland reek. Each kiss upon the kooshdakhaa’s forged face falls like an uncertain step across the peril of a muskeg swamp. Each kiss brings me closer, threatening to drown me in stagnant water, to turn me away from life, to pull me into her cold realm. Though I give in to her kiss, I resist.
There is a schoolgirl in town who traded herself to two large, bald-headed men in black T-shirts and ripped jeans. In exchange, they killed her mother. They stole into her house at night, gagged and bound her. Using the family’s van, they drove her halfway up the mountain, to the end of a dusty logging road, where earlier they had left a getaway car. Using a cheap hunting rifle, they shot her once above the left eye, and then set fire to her corpse.
A Fish and Game officer found the burned out van in the morning. The officer thought it was just another abandoned vehicle—it happens all the time-until he saw the charred body melded to the springs of the van’s backseat.
That night, the kooshdakhaa comes to me dressed in the dead mother’s face, a small hole in her forehead above her left eye, though she has yet to burn. It is a trick to get me to come with her.
I kiss her, the blood still hot on her cheeks.
The impound lot behind the Alaska State Trooper’s station is almost always empty, but now the blackened skeleton of a Dodge minivan sits alone.
I had known the dead mother to say hello, nothing more. My daughter had known her evil daughter; they played basketball together.
Each kiss upon the dead mother’s face draws me further from my humanity. Each night, her trick is working, although still I resist. After, she walks back into the woods alone.
There is a trial. Like everyone else in town, I read the bereaved daughter’s scandalizing online posts.
She hated her mother. Suffocated by the tiny town and the surrounding forest, she wanted to kill, kill, kill, escape. The two men had read the posts too, offered their help. She accepted, and here I am, kissing the dead mother every night, her hands on my hips, pulling me against her as I resist the urge to follow her into the forest.
I want my sweethearts back. I want my mother, my brother, my love. But as the dead mother, the kooshdakhaa is persistent. She is demanding in ways she had not been while wearing the faces of those I know.
Her lips are cold, but the blood coating them is not—I can’t resist.
The two bald men are convicted of murder. And although the schoolgirl is acquitted, she is no longer welcome here. She moves south to Washington state. Sometimes, at the grocery store, I see her father, the widower. He moves as if he is underwater. Like most residents, I am unable to meet his eyes. I wonder if the kooshdakhaa visits him, and if so, do they kiss? Do they make love tangled in dew and devil’s club at the edge of the forest? Somehow, I doubt it.
There is an article about the murder in People magazine, and in the top left corner of the photo you can see my father’s barnacle-covered boat. The wood is gray, and the cabin is rotting.
The dead mother comes to me nightly, and she is always crying. This is not the real dead mother, I know. Just as it is not my real mother, father, brother, daughter, son who I miss.
I seek the the smell of swamp on her lips. It is faint beneath the iron sting of the blood, but it is there, and so I know.
Tonight, her face is flowing: dead mother, live mother, daughter, father, and son. Between the shifting cheeks and eyes, I catch a glimpse of the kooshdakhaa’s true face—furred and terrible, teeth barbed like fish hooks pressed against black lips. After the kiss, she takes my hand, and together we walk into the forest’s verdant embrace.