v u l v a l i c i o u s
telling my mother's stories
On the darkest nights of winter, my sister would want to play the game. I couldn't sleep. My body runs cold and she would hear my shivering from her bed.
"Let's play. Come on, just one or two. And then you can sleep."
The night was pressing up against the windows, leaving fogged breath around the edges. I pulled the covers up.
"I don't want to. I don't like it."
"Fine," she'd say. "I'll play alone."
But she never would. She would always needle at me until I gave in. Rolling over to face her bed, I'd say, "alright, just 3 questions tonight. Then that's all. We have church in the morning."
The first question always felt like the worst. Always. She'd ask it, and it would hang over my head, a sparkling terror in the dark. "Would you rather...slide down razor blades into the ocean...or..." she paused, inventing an equally horrifying alternative, "or..." this time drawing out the word til I was sure she was about to give up. "Watch momma do it?"
So there it was. I shivered harder as I pictured myself being torn to bits, then tossed around the salt water. I could feel it choking me as I looked up and watched my momma sliding down the same way, her face contorted in pain. I winced, then answered: "me, I guess."
My sister never reacted to my answers, so I never knew if I got them right or not. I hoped that one day I would give the answer that would make her stop asking me, but mostly I just felt powerless.
The next question. She usually made this one a little easier, or at least less painful to imagine.
"Alright. So, next one is this. Would you rather eat a bowl full of worms, or a plate full of cockroaches?"
I gagged a bit, revolted at the thought of either. I remembered our dinner from earlier, pasta with meat sauce, and in my mind it became worms covered in cockroaches, and the bugs were crawling out of me, squirming to get out through my mouth. I pulled the covers up tighter and shook my head, hard.
"The worms," I said as quickly as I could.
"Ewww, squirmy, crawly, worms. Just imagine how gross they'd be, slithering down your throat."
I didn't want to, so I looked to the window. I imagined the night breaking the glass and coming into our room. Would it grab her first? Would she scream? Would I save her? I knew I'd want to, but I didn't think I could. I'd just lie still and hope that the night would take me quickly or not at all.
"Just one more, right? And then let's not play this any more, I don't like it."
"Oh, you're such a baby. It's just a what if game. None of this is ever going to happen. But fine, one more. And then you can fall right to sleep." She waited, rolling around a question in her mind. Though the first question always felt the worst in the moment, the last question really was the most horrific, the most despicable.
The last question was a variation on a theme. Always. Always, who would you save? Always, me or him? Me or her? Him or her?
The first time she asked it, I had refused to answer. But she had refused to give up. She asked me again in the morning, and whispered it to me in church. I hadn't eaten that morning, had felt too sick at the thought of choosing one person over the other, and so I actually fainted when she asked me. The nuns had scooped me up and shoved me to the back of the church and told me I needed to pray about the importance of paying attention to the Word of God.
And she had kept on. After lunch, there she was. Walking home, the question again. All day, until we were in bed and she started the question game again. At which point I named someone. And she knew I'd always answer her from then on.
So tonight, as she rolled the pairings around in her head, I tried to clear out my mind and let my answer just come to me.
"If me and Momma were both drowning, who would you save?"
And it never failed. My empty brain would fill up right then, right as the question was finished. I was back in the sea of razor blades, and my sister had just slid down them to join Momma and me. I knew I couldn't save either one of them. I was going under, choking and spitting and sucking in air. And then I'd see the two of them clinging to each other, saving themselves somehow. Pulling up out of the water right before I sunk down and was swallowed whole.