First published by Barren Magazine in March 2020
Sam had been waiting so long that the maitre d" was pointedly looking over at her empty table, in an otherwise heaving restaurant. She had already sipped her way through a glass of wine, as slowly as she dared, and was probably going to have to order food to keep the table. She signalled for a waiter, and placed an order for a starter that could be shared, followed by a small Pizza Margherita and a side of garden salad. She hoped she"d be hungry by the time the food arrived, because right now she felt nauseated.
She was checking her phone for missed calls when a pungent scent assaulted her senses, and she looked up. The perfume emanated from a petite woman with thin limbs, and a pale, gaunt face that was poorly disguised with liberal makeup.
"Samantha?" The woman"s mouth moved, though Sam could not hear her, perhaps due to the cacophony going on at the next table where there was cheering and clapping for someone"s birthday. Perhaps it was due to the frail woman being unable to summon the diaphragmatic power to push air through her dry lips.
Sam stood up and gestured for her guest to sit.
"Good evening, madam," said the waiter, as if he had been waiting on tenterhooks for her arrival. "May I offer you a drink?"
"A small glass of Merlot, please," said the woman, her mouth turning up into something nearly a smile.
"Here is your menu, madam. Let me know when you are ready to order."
While Sam wondered whether the waiter was actually Italian or was only putting on his accent, the woman held up her menu for him to take. "I won"t be eating, thank you."
"Very good. And perhaps another glass for you, Miss?"
Sam smiled her assent, and watched him go, her eyes lingering on him longer than was really polite until the woman spoke and she was compelled to look at her. The voice was a little higher than she remembered, and of course her face was more lined, where her lying memory was of a much younger woman with near-perfect skin and a radiance about her. Sam suspected that the woman was also in the throes of an inevitable comparison of Sam-Then and Sam-Now. The wine arrived, and the women nodded their thanks without breaking eye contact. The other woman"s gaze was soft, yet inquiring, and not as unwelcome as she had feared.
The knot in her stomach rose to strangle her larynx and tongue. Sam"s fingers released the stem of the glass she had been gripping out of some subconscious desire for an anchor, and she placed her hands out of sight on her lap. Centring herself on her breath, her hands found their dhyana mudra, her palms facing upwards, fingers of the right hand resting lightly on those of the left, thumb tips a paper"s thickness apart. Be still and be here, she silently repeated, let things be just as they are. The knot loosened a little.
"How are you?" asked the woman. She sounded as if she cared. She did not touch her drink.
For twenty years Sam had waited to see her, to be asked this simple question. And for those twenty years, she knew that the meeting would be rich with emotion, heartful, heartbreaking, a warm glow of forgiveness beginning to form from a crack in the tiny, cold stone lodged in her chest. That was in her dream life. And in her real life, Sam would sometimes catch her mind searching and grasping for something unnamable and lacking, like a toddler trying to grab onto fine silken strands dangling just out of reach.
"I am well." That was close enough to the truth. She had always felt nearly whole, nearly fulfilled, almost in balance. But she did not want to share her innermost thoughts and feelings, did not want to risk being gutted like an animal and her heart sliced open.
"I"m glad." The woman spoke gently and carefully, each word given more power by their scant number.
"And how are you?"
"I have cancer," said the woman, without changing her tone. She pointed to her pelvis, her stomach, her chest. "It is everywhere."
"I"m sorry," said Sam. She was sorry for anyone going through cancer, and she supposed she could be at least as sorry for her mother, even a mother she had not seen since she was ten years old.
"How long..?" She wanted to take some wine, a lot of wine, but forced her hands back into her lap and quickly recited the silent mantra.
"Weeks, perhaps. There"s nothing more to be done." The woman paused, looking down, then back at Sam. "Except for this."
The starter arrived. It looked enticing, as it always did, the panko-crumbed stuffed olives nestled amongst sprigs of rocket and pea shoots, mustard and lemon dip in a miniature ramekin.
"Try these, they"re the house specialty."
"I can only manage fluids, but thank you. Please eat, I really don"t mind." To encourage Sam, the woman took a sip of her wine, and set down the glass between her unused knife and fork.
"How long will you be here? I meant, how long are you staying?"
"I will be going home tomorrow, back to my husband."
"You re-married then."
"He"s a good man."
Sam asked for the olives to be taken away. The waiter looked sorrowful as he removed the platter.
"Dad died last year. Heart attack," said Sam.
Her mother nodded. "He would have been… fifty-five?"
Sam"s main course arrived. She thanked the waiter, and cut along the edge of a slice. Toyed with some baby spinach and thinly sliced radish. Her favourite dishes would be returned to the kitchen, the waiter would have to dispose of the uneaten food before the quick-tempered chef discovered his treachery and his collusion with Sam, the thankless patron.
"The elephant in the room," said her mother, and the women"s eyes locked in mutual understanding. There would be no hysterics, no overt displays of emotion to embarrass themselves nor the other diners.
The day before Sam"s mother ran away, Sam was almost ten years old and her mother had told her that she was going to get her present early.
"But you have to promise me something first," said her mother, bending down to whisper into the young girl"s ear.
"Okay, okay, I promise," said Sam, not caring about why she would receive her gift early, her childish greed all that was in her mind.
"I"m serious. You mustn"t tell Dad."
"You said you"d promise," said her mother, and she looked in the direction of the driveway. His red and white Chevy Corvette was not yet here.
"I promise," said Sam in earnest.
"Okay." She hugged the little girl and planted a kiss on each cheek. "It will be in your bottom drawer, but remember, don"t show it to Dad until your birthday."
"Can I open it now?" said Sam, itching to go to her room.
"Go on then," said her mother, and she laughed quietly as she watched her daughter race up the stairs. There was a sound of the drawer opening, rummaging, rustling and tearing of paper, then silence, more rustling and the sound of the drawer being closed, then the thudding of footsteps, then Sam appearing in the kitchen, face flushed and eyes wide, grinning.
"Thanks, Mum, they"re amazing, just what I wanted." They hugged and her mother held her a fraction longer than usual, and then kissed her on both cheeks, forehead, and nose.
"Yuk," said Sam, brushing her cuff over her face. She stuck her tongue out. But she was secretly pleased.
A bright light streamed through the kitchen window, accompanied by a low rumbling, the sound of a handbrake being applied.
"Did you hide everything?" said her mother quickly, her lightness and levity replaced by something dark, something haunted and hunted.
"Yes, Mum," said Sam.
Then Dad walked in.
"You gave me a matching locket and bracelet, and a watercolour set," said Sam. She signalled for the waiter to come over, and asked him if she might take the food home in a box? Of course she could, said the waiter, anything for our favorite lady. She thanked him, and said she hoped she wasn"t in trouble with the kitchen. He laughed uproariously, making the couple next to them look over and smile.
"I loved you, so, so much."
Sam"s palms were sweating. She wiped them on her dress, removed her cardigan, doused her parched throat with a glass of tepid water.
"I wanted to tell you what I was going to do. But I couldn"t. He would have found out and stopped me." She stopped speaking, and looked deep into Sam"s eyes. "He was sucking the life out of me. I stayed for as long as I could, for you. Do you understand?"
"I was nine years old. I thought I had done something wrong." She did not say it in an accusing way, but she wanted her mother to be aware of her legacy. "Every day, I checked the phone and the post for something from you. Whenever there was a knock at the door I used to think – well at first, I used to hope it was you, coming back to us – but then I used to dread that it would be the police, coming to tell me that they"d found you. Found your body." In spite of her greatest efforts to keep her tone neutral, Sam found her voice cracking. She envisaged an expanding tangle of barbed wire rising from her chest like ivy, choking her from within.
"I cannot say anything that will take back what I have done." The woman looked down, and slowly brushed her hand over an invisible wrinkle.
"No, you can"t."
"I will not ask for your forgiveness, Samantha. It is neither expected nor deserved. Cancer notwithstanding."
Sam shook her head slightly. In the face of such grim philosophical acceptance, how could she dare to remain angry with this woman? What could her mother possibly be expected to do in atonement, even if she could?
The black lace-weaver spider had lain her eggs a month before, lovingly encasing her offspring in a white sack within her web, in the corner of the enclosed front porch.
Sam liked to pretend that the tiny space was a house made just for her. Stacked to one side was a pile of logs, which had first attracted the spider. Sam would drag the logs into a ring, and then curl up in the centre, tucking a blanket around her, and read. They were meant for the wood-burning stove in the hall but it was broken and her father never got round to fixing it, so winters were destined to be forever cold in the house. Her father would tell her to put on her coat and hat and mittens if he heard her complaining. He didn"t mind where she spent her free time, just as long as it didn"t interrupt his permanent date with cable TV.
She had discovered the creature, an arachnid not an insect, she proudly informed her father, and she wanted to study it for her science project. He grunted in reply to her plea not to kill it, and promptly forgot about the spider as his favourite program came on. Sam quickly brought him a chilled can of beer as he sat slumped in his armchair to the sound of golf commentary. Sam didn"t mind where her father was as long as he wasn"t shouting at her. These days, he was nearly always in a bad mood.
Over the next few days, she watched as the eggs hatched into a hundred tiny spiderlings. They feasted on the second mound of trophic eggs. Then, three days later, she watched in wonder as the growing babies moulted, leaving behind their old exoskeletons and scuttling about the web in their plump and shiny new bodies.
She did not see the moment the mother spider walked purposefully around her web, spinning more silk and thrumming all the while to call her babies to her. She did not see the spiderlings spring into a sudden ferocious attack on their life-giver, their predatory genes fired into being by the vibrations, injecting deadly enzymes into her compliant body. She did not see the mother spider"s insides liquefy and become their new food source. All this happened over an hour, whilst Sam was fast asleep in her bed.
The arrival of the bill signalled the end of their reunion, which had been more in keeping with a sterile exchange of disclosure and efficient, succinct clarification of fact. A contract to agree that what was done, was done. A mother had given birth, nurtured her young, and left the nest. The next generation would carry on without her, marking the successful completion of her maternal duties.
They embraced stiffly outside the restaurant, where a brisk wind was whisking up stray trash. It was dark but for the yellowish streetlights which gave her mother a jaundiced appearance.
"Take care, Samantha," said her mother, looking for the last time at her adult daughter, taller and stronger than she had ever been. She held out her hand for a passing taxi, entered and closed the door. The taxi accelerated away.
"You too," said Sam. She drew her scarf about her more snugly to keep out the cold night, and began the walk home.
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