I came home for the holidays to find my mother’s house falling apart. As far as I could tell, she blamed it on the dishes.
“There’s always more, always more,” she muttered, scrubbing one of the pots. “And I have to do them all. Don’t we have a maid? Give me her number. I should fire her.”
When I opened the laundry room door, a pile of linens buckled and knocked me down. I crawled out from under the debris and separated the mound into lights and darks, towels and clothing.
With the first load in, I realized my mother was missing. I found her on the back porch. Strands of black hair fell out of her bun and coiled around the base of her chair. She smoked and pet the cat, who conveyed pride of ownership by kneading her thighs with its paws.
“Mom, will you come inside? It’s cold out.”
“No . . . not yet. We’re in the middle of a conversation.”
She consulted her cat about major life changes and asked for its opinion on personal affairs. She did this for hours each day, burning holes in her fingers and clothes when she forgot to ash her cigarette. As I stepped over dishes, I wondered why one woman needed so many plates. Looking at their backs, I saw many still had stickers on them. It couldn't be true—but over half were brand new. She’d been buying more dishes instead of washing them.
The cat came inside. It stared at me, its blue eyes boring through mine, its impossibly long black tail trailing on the floor. I ran to the hallway, and it followed me with a low groan like the sound a shredder makes.
“Leave me alone.”
I ran to my room and shut the door. I put on winter clothes. Took an hour-long walk. Cleared my head. There were so many dishes . . .
That night I brought the plates to the front yard. I left them by the trash. Snow fell, creating white mounds over their piles. Maybe the dishes would show up again in the spring. I suspect most would be taken by people, maybe the garbage women.
“There are no more dishes, Mother,” I whispered, handing her dinner on a paper plate. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
She nodded. Dark circles bulged under her eyes. And her gray roots were growing in; she used to be so diligent about keeping her hair black.
The cat jumped in her lap, purring. Almost as a reflex, her hands lifted to pet it, and its tail brushed my thigh. After making sure she ate, I went to my room. My leg was singed as though someone had dragged a fire iron across my skin.
The next morning, I threw the cat outside.
“You’re killing her.”
She searched the whole house, shaking treats and calling its name. Outside, a blizzard started.
“Mother, come inside.”
She’d been walking outdoors in her bathrobe, disoriented. She didn’t recognize me when I called her name, and I walked her back inside carefully, afraid of scaring her off. I drew a hot bath and tried to wash the stink off her. Having been so preoccupied with cleaning the house, I hadn’t realized how dirty she was. As though she hadn’t showered in months. But she didn’t say anything as I ran a loofah along the length of her arms, or combed wild knots from her hair, or scrubbed the dirt under her fingernails. She just stared at the water, her knees pressed against her chest, engrossed in her rippling reflection. Her long hair filled the tub and surrounded her body like a large black womb.
I got up in the middle of the night. I’d forgotten to eat dinner. When I opened the refrigerator door, the light illuminated my mother on her knees, wearing her white nightgown, lapping water from the cat’s bowl: the last dish in the house.
She looked at me, her eyes freshly blue. “Mine now,” she hissed.
I watched my mother stand up, growling, her teeth bared. There was something stiff and composed about her, something resolutely not my mother. Her eyes too wide-set, her movements too mechanical. Pregnant silence grew between us. Then she stumbled on her hair, which was so long now she seemed to have grown from it, and not the other way around. I took my chance to grab a flashlight from one of the cupboards and bound upstairs. Behind me, I could hear her thumping feet in pursuit.
I raced madly through the hallway, dashed into my bedroom, and managed to slam the door closed behind me, almost catching my mother’s fingers. I could no longer hear her, but I knew she was in the hall, pacing back and forth, waiting for my return. After locking the door, I put on a coat and winter boots before climbing out my bedroom window, cutting my hand on the drainpipe in the process. Later, I found my mother at the bottom of our hill, frozen, with chunks of flesh torn from her face. I carried her back to the house.
Brianna Di Monda (she/her) is an Assistant Managing Editor at MAYDAY. Her fiction and criticism have appeared in The Summerset Review, The Cleveland Review, and Thin Air, among others. She was nominated for the 2021 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Find her on Twitter @wanna_bri.