"Mouth"

Erica McKeen

Erica McKeen (she/her) is a writer, organizer, and teacher. She recently completed her MA in English literature from Western University. Originally born on London Township treaty territory (otherwise known as 'London, Ontario'), she is a Poetry London board member, assistant editor at The /temz/ Review, and co-organizer of LOMP: reading series. Her novel, Tear, was longlisted for The Guernica Prize, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dalhousie Review, Minola Review, Canthius, and elsewhere. She currently lives on Musqueam land in Vancouver, British Columbia..

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"'Mouth' is a response to and re-interpretation of Edvard Munch's art series The Sick Child. Just as Munch reproduced multiple versions of the same image of his sister dying of tuberculosis at the age of fifteen, "Mouth" splits an interaction between a dying, elderly woman and her daughter, Colleen, into distinct yet overlapping segments, ultimately comparing and contrasting child death with elderly death and investigating the process of death in general. It is a meditation on efforts of artistic representation, dying, and the female body."

McKeen - source - Edvard Munch, The Sick

Hands [1]

 

are in her lap as she settles herself on the edge of the bed. Her finger pads hold the same whirls from when she was younger. In the stairwell there is a photograph of herself at fifteen. It wasn’t unusual at that time to die of certain fevers and strains of pneumonia, certain bacterial infections, and in the picture she had been dying. Her brother took it—obtrusively—she vaguely remembers that in the blur of her illness came a flash and her brother scurrying away, and her mother flying after him, and in recovery she requested the photo and kept it, and kept the sketches he had made of her, too. 

Hands [2]

She used both [2] hands to frame the photograph and hang it on the wall in the stairwell, so each night before going to bed she would see it.

 

Hands [3]

 

Her daughter, Colleen, didn’t like the photograph, and on her way up to bed she would rush with both her [2] hands covering her eyes. When she reached the top she would go to her mother and pull her [1] large hand onto her skin, pressing it like a warm washcloth, [3] hands in layers swallowing her face.

 

Face [1]

 

Facing her mother, who sits on the edge of the bed and faces away from her, looking toward the open doorway and the stairwell beyond, Colleen unties the laces of one thick, black shoe. Although she unties the laces expertly, pulling the shoe from the sock and rubber skin of her mother’s block-like foot, she is thinking of other things—of her husband at home and the children’s shoes she will tie in the morning, discarding this one last duty of the day already into her memory, this final and repetitive act of putting her mother to bed, looking forward to the next serviceable motion of these her [2] hands, the faces she will plant upon her face. 

     Looking away from her, holding her face in profile, her mother is in the middle of telling her a story.

     Little toy cars, she says, on the top of the step, lined up like they were in a traffic jam. 

     Little toy cars? asks Colleen. You know how this makes you sound.

     Of course I know how it makes me sound. I can hear myself, can’t I? But that’s what happened, that’s what I saw: little toy cars, on the top of the step, lined up like they were in a traffic jam. Little toy cars, all different colours, but instead of wheels they had feet.

     God, Mom!

     All in a row, all different colours.

     This is the kind of stuff that would make a normal daughter put you away in a nursing home, you know. You’re just lucky—

     —that I raised you myself and taught you better than that?

 

Face [1—mouth (1)]

 

No, what I was going to say was that you’re just lucky I don’t have the money to put you away anywhere fancy. I couldn’t in good conscience put you away anywhere less than fancy because I’m sure—I’m sure—you would drive whatever roommate they cramped you with to her semi-premature death.

     What—because of my talking?

     I would call it more your mouth.

     Ha! You don’t know how good you have it. All of this—she gestures to the dim bedroom, the clutter in the corners, the smell of something between disinfectant and decay, the bed on which she perches, Colleen crouched before her, untying her shoes—would be much less exciting without my mouth for entertainment. 

     Well, close your mouth for one minute, would you? Hold still.

     Colleen leans her shoulder weight against the side of the bed, pulling off the second shoe with the care necessary to not stretch the flesh on the swollen slope around the Achilles tendon. Her mother sighs and flexes her toes.

 

Body [1]

 

Looking at the photo her brother had taken of her while she was dying, and all of the sketches based off the photograph, she grew alarmed at the consistent vagueness of her body, her limbs swathed in blankets, formless, like the mucous inside a cocoon. This vagueness in contrast to the precision of her face made her uneasy. The vagueness seemed correct. The presumption behind the repetitive, precise faces seemed to be that death could be captured and categorized—that it could be segmented, pulled apart. She knew this was the wrong approach to take, but maybe the only possible one, for representation’s sake. From her near death she learned that dying is messy and sloppy, as uncoordinated as a baby deer.

 

Body [2]

 

Colleen was ashamed at first to help her mother undress. Oh how our heroes have fallen. But the nobility of her mother’s posture as she pulled off her shirt and unclipped her bra, even with her bent back, turned something over in Colleen, like turning over a stone and discovering a brightly speckled salamander instead of earthworms, like hauling a weight off a pocket of cool air and allowing it, like breath, to escape. It was important to witness her mother in nudity. She realized after seeing the length of her mother’s wrinkled breasts that she had been less ashamed than afraid: afraid of solidifying within her mind the form that her own body would one day inhabit. It was the fear of her middle-aged body [1] overlapping and coinciding with that of her elderly mother’s [2], creating a sort of slipstream in which she became not herself. 

 

Body [3]

 

In her memories later, in her dreams which are also memories, Colleen will find herself stumbling through sheets of flesh strung up like laundry on a line. Behind these sheets she will see the shadow of the third body, the complete and separate body [3] made from the amalgamation of her own and her mother’s. 

     She will stumble through the sheets, groping after this shadow.

 

Face [1—mouth (2)]

 

Colleen is laughing.

     Some of the toenails on the little feet were painted, says her mother. 

     Some of them had little designs—pedicures. 

     The laughter falls like small pieces of voice out of Colleen’s mouth:  ha

                                                                                                                   ha

                                                                                                                             ha

                                                                                                                   ha

                                                                                                         ha

                                                                                               ha

                                                                                     ha

                                                                           ha

                                                                  ha

                                                        ha

                                              ha

                                    ha

                          ha

     and the only reason she doesn’t keep laughing across the room and back again, her voice marching along the walls, is because her mother begins to slip ever steadily off the side of the bed (there is no muscle, no fat left at the top of her thighs to secure her tailbone on the blanket). Colleen stands up, one smooth, serious movement, like an ax swinging to its mark, hooks her mother under the armpits and heaves her, squatting like a weightlifter, back onto the bed.

     It’s a wonder you haven’t broken a hip, says Colleen.

     I’m tired, says her mother. You’re the one taking so long to get me out of these clothes. 

 

Face [1—mouth (3)]

Finish that story you were telling me.

     I thought you didn’t like it.

     I thought it was ridiculous. I never said I didn’t like it.

     Sure, okay, but no more interruptions.

     …

     What’s that for?

     What?

     That face.

     What face? This is me not interrupting you.

     You’ve never made things easy, have you?

     Come on, Mom. 

     Do you want me to tell the story or not?

     What do you think? I just asked you to tell the story.

     Okay! No more interruptions.

     …

     Well, as I was telling you, when they put me on that new medication, they said there would be side effects, but I never expected anything like what happened. Hallucinations wasn’t a side effect they mentioned. I had come upstairs to bed, and I was sitting just like this, on the edge of the mattress, leaning over to take off my shoes and my pantyhose, and I looked over through the open door at the stairs. There was a little car on the top step, bright yellow. Even from this distance I could see that instead of wheels it had four little feet with five little toes each, five little toenails.

     It made sense at the time, like how dreams make sense while you’re dreaming them. But it wasn’t a dream, and I thought, isn’t that nice—the car must have lost its wheels somewhere, and it grew feet to replace them. It would never move as fast as it could with wheels—just imagine. But at least it could move a little. And sure enough, as I watched, the little car lifted its belly off the floor and began to strut along the top of the step until it reached the wall. And while this happened, another car appeared, this time bright red, behind it, with four little feet, just the same. And then a blue car, and then a green, and finally I was quick enough to see that they were being place there by a hand, that there was someone sitting below on the stairs hiding from me, putting the cars up on the step.

     There they all were, quiet and waiting: little toy cars, on the top of the step, lined up like they were in a traffic jam. 

     When the hand had finished, and the top step was full, I stood and went over to the stairs, but there was no one there. The stairs were empty. Eventually I went back to bed and to sleep and when I woke in the morning the little cars were gone.

     See, this is the problem, Colleen interjects. This is why you worry me. You tell it so seriously, like it really happened.

     It did really happen. Only I know now that it only really happened in my head.

     Colleen exhales through her lips.

     Oh, come on. There’s some sound logic in that. Anyway, that isn’t quite the end. I can’t say for sure who was putting the little cars on the step, but I have a pretty good guess.

     And what’s that?

     Well, when I stood up to find out who it was, something else was empty besides the stairs. One of the pictures on the stairwell wall. The small one, right in the middle. (The one you hate so much.) Like someone had stolen the photograph right out of the frame.

     So you think—

     —I don’t think any of this, not seriously, you know that.

     But in the realm of the story, the hallucination—

     Sure, in the realm of the story.

     That picture—

     Yes.

     …

     What? What’s that face for?

     I’m putting you in a home for sure now.

     Of course you are.

     First thing tomorrow morning.

     I’ll be waiting.

     Pack your things.

     Sell them—you need the money.

     Mom!

     You started it.

     And now I’ll end it. It’s time you got some sleep.

     Colleen pulls the blankets up over her mother, who has leaned back against the pillows. Her cotton nightgown is a soft wall against the thinness of her legs. She blinks and smiles and turns her face aside.

Body [1 ½]

 

Ultimately, looking at the photograph and all of the sketches, she felt flattered to be segmented so articulately. 

 

Face [2]

 

Colleen turns off the light and walks out of the bedroom and halfway down the stairs. She looks at the photograph on the stairwell wall, the small one, right in the middle. (The one she hates so much.) She has always had trouble looking at it, always wondered why her mother kept it. 

     It was the first time her mother was dying. 

     And suddenly she finds herself unafraid, unattached. She sees her own face [1] as her own face, and not a duplicate of this girl’s [2]. Her mother was fifteen years old and dying. Colleen is middle-aged and has never been sick once, not in this real way that pinches at the edges of death. She thinks of her mother in the bed and realizes now that this first moment of dying isn’t any more than the present one, isn’t any more significant, more striking or performative, isn’t worth more or somehow more precious, more delicate or poignant, more useful for memory or narrative. She looks back into the bedroom, up the stairs, and sees her mother’s face turned sideways on the pillow, her hair spilling out like foam around her scalp, her neck skin sagging, melting into the cream of the sheets, her face in profile, the swell of the nose, the lips, the forehead, the dip of the eye sockets, the droop of the lids hanging upward over the eyes that look for a moment into the hallway light, a small glassy reflection there of yellow. And isn’t this the same, Colleen thinks, not any less or worse, not any less prohibitive or startling, this second dying? This knowing, for sure, that she is dying? That there is no third dying hanging somewhere like a beckoning hand up ahead? That there is no surviving this, and no need to, no requirement for more?

     In the dim slope of the hallway light sapping into the bedroom, Colleen sees a girl in the bed—small—the same girl from the stairwell photograph, the second dying folding into the first: looking keenly at Colleen, like the face of her own death existing somewhere in the future, a small, glassy reflection there of yellow.

     She goes downstairs and turns off the kitchen TV, which is obtrusive in the big house, yapping like static, like incomprehension, in the background of the silence of sleep.

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