On the smallest finger joint of my right hand there is a scar, a tiny, fleshy thing shaped like a heart. I was five, perhaps six. Mum and I were laughing, wrestling, and the sapphire on her engagement ring cut me. The scar it left is something that makes me think of home. It reminds me of the house in which I was born; bottlebrush fence out the front, pea-green roof, black and white cat. My father covered the shed in the garden with white paint, and then we painted a mural on the wall. My grandmother was horrified, but she didn’t know the magic that lies in marking your own home.
Every few years my mother packs a tent and hiking poles and sets off for Ireland. She lives in the bush in a small octagonal yurt, an open space of wood and light, with tall windows that look out across the paddocks and a glass section of roof that lets the moon in at night. Sometimes the tips of the overhanging gums scratch at the glass like fingers. Sometimes there are bats in the cupboards. She asked me to house-sit while she was gone and I said yes because I hadn’t been back to the bush where I grew up in a long time.
The dawn woke me on the first morning, angling in through the trees in low white beams. Scraping up the last twigs in the wood box, I got a fire going in the potbelly stove to heat the yurt, and sat for a while in the early light, listening to the first strain of the magpies. There were piles of books on almost every surface of mum’s home: books about ancient Egypt and Greece, sacred astrology, standing stones, stone circles, the meaning of dreams; I thumbed through some of them, wondering about the things my mother knows.
Once I had a steady flame going I threw on a coat and headed down the hill that glistened beyond the window, pale with dew. Down at the stone circle she had made, the white quartz and rusty ochres were partially hidden by leaves and rings of bark that the gums throw down. Squatting in my gumboots, I picked at the leaf mulch collecting between the stones with fingers growing numb in the wet. I was wary of unearthing fat, sleeping spiders, so I made a mental note to come down here later and really clean it up.
The air had softened in the time I’d been outside, losing the blue glass bite from the first half hour of the day, that brief stretch of time when the world astonishes. Birds swept and thudded the air and there was a bright smell coming from the ground. I crouched in the bird calls and the wet grass and the ants that were beginning to pick their way through the undergrowth. The hillside was still dewy in the shadows, carpeted by white, interrupted only by mounds of hay bales and the gums, their white skins lighting up with the day.
Further down the hill, the old sheep pen was still fenced off, its wire sagging and its forests of grass untouched. The sheep shelter is an old water tank, sliced in half and turned upside down. Piles of brush and kindling were stacked inside, their twiggy ends all pointing in the same direction. I took an armful and scoured the grass and bases of nearby trees to restock the pile. It was cold but I wanted to take my shoes off, feel the grass stubble under my feet, the seep of the wet earth. Had my younger self ever stood in the exact same spot I stood now? The dog, the old blue heeler cross, would have been slumped at my feet, drooling over a chewed chicken neck. I had forgotten the groan of the rusty swing-set by the clothes line, the way the grass heads nodded at the slightest breeze, the jarring screech of the white cockatoos. I slapped a mosquito away from my leg. Despite the birds and distant lowing of bulls there was a silence to this place now and it was heavy with yearning.
Light seeped across the paddocks. I tidied the kindling in the shed and went back up to mum’s to make a cup of tea.
• • •
Since I can remember, my mother has had a circle of women around her. Women who held me when I was born, and when I grew a little older, remembered the weight of me. They held my mother when she bore me, held her up by the arms as her body drooped and heaved, white and groaning and damp with sweat, as she thought me out and pushed me into the world.
‘I can’t remember what time you were born,’ mum told me. ‘It was either two in the morning, or two in the afternoon. I think it was the afternoon.’
I said to her, ‘How could you have forgotten that, Mum?’
But maybe I’m the one who has forgotten, because it seems strange that someone would forget when they gave birth. What I remember is the women, singing. My mother sang to me for years:
Who were the witches, where do they come from?
Maybe your great-great-grandmother was one.
Witches were wise, wise women they say.
There’s a little witch in every woman today.
For a long time I thought there was a little witch girl inside me, small enough to fit in my stomach. I used to worry about her pointed hat. Would it crumple in there? Would it poke my insides?
The women taught me things. One showed me how to hold onto the sleeve of my shirt when I pulled on a jumper so the sleeve didn’t roll up and bunch around my elbow. Another showed me how to press the top of a milk carton into a beak so the milk could pour out. My mother taught me how to place a pad in my underwear, and told me always to buy the ones with wings. Sometimes when I see people buying pads with no wings I feel sorry for them that their mother mustn’t have told them which ones to get.
Sometimes I imagine my birth. I imagine the mothers making a circle, holding my mother in the middle of them, holding me. There is something that happens when women come together and I was only being born so I couldn’t know then, but I do now: something happens when women know they are women. Something of my mother and her circle came into my skin when I came out of her, and it has clung my entire life. Sometimes I can’t tell how much of my mother I am, and how much of me. Between our bodies, telling woman apart from mother is hard.
• • •
The potbelly stove is small and it was enough to take the edge off the morning’s bite but I still searched through mum’s drawers looking for warm socks. Before she left for Ireland I had gone with her to the local timber yard to stock up on wood for the winter. The days were getting shorter and my breath came in smoky puffs in the cold. I climbed up the wood pile and tossed logs down over my shoulder to mum, who heaved them into the car. When the boot was neatly stacked, we headed off, and it took me a few minutes to realise she wasn’t driving the usual way home. I looked over at her.
‘Where are we going, Mum?’
‘I thought we could have a treat,’ she replied, smiling at me.
We found a park by a shopping centre, found a coffee shop. Mum accidentally ordered the extra-large coffee. It was almost as big as her face. Laughing, she could hardly drink it, and looked around a few times with embarrassment. Her delight and incredulity at the coffee touched me and out of nowhere I felt a hot swell of love for her that was almost painful. As her head turned to profile, it struck me suddenly how much she looked like my grandmother. It was there in her high cheekbones, and the way her eyelids disappeared into creases at the corner. I didn’t often see the similarity between them but I did then, and it was arresting.
I am so similar to my mother it scares me. It’s scared me since I was old enough to know it. I hold her away from me but when everything collapses it’s her lap I fall into, it’s with her that I let myself cry the wrenching, ugly tears that leave me with a headache. It’s she who tucks me into bed when I have cried myself to exhaustion.
Mum was watching me watch her with a look on her face I hadn’t seen in a long time. Her gaze made something inside me feel warm and weightless. Did my face mirror hers? People tell me I look more like my father but I think on the inside I am the same as my mother. I was 13 when she let me pierce my ears. I fainted. Felt proud of my throbbing ears for days. One night I called out to her in panic, having rolled on my ear and pulled the earring out. We looked for the earring in my bed but it remained lost, so she took an earring from her own ear and slid the slim hook into mine. I winced in anticipation, but I didn’t feel it go through.
I lay back down, fingering my hot ear with its cool jewel. The weight was strange. Something that belonged to someone older than me. Mum lay down beside me, and in the weak light I looked at her, touched her waves of shadowy hair on the pillow, inhaled her smell. The faint sweetness of her skin made me think of gum leaves, cumin, essential oils. With a slight shock I saw that she shaved under her arms: I hadn’t known she did that. I forgot to ask her about it in the morning. When I started to grow hair under my arms, it wasn’t red like hers, and I wondered why we didn’t look the same.
Late in the afternoon I looked up from my book at the low hum of a tractor. It was warm now, and the smell of the dairy across the hill hung in the air. With my sister and brother, I used to watch the cows being herded up to the dairy at this time every day. Our neighbours had a cow and they showed us how to milk her, and we learned how to press thumb and forefinger around the warm teat and stroke down, hard. We shook the milk in jars, our small arms aching, and we made butter and ate it, melting, on bread mum pulled straight from the oven. When she made bread I helped her knead it, fists powdered in flour, until she taught me to make it myself.
When the last of the cows disappeared from the hills, and the light turned the gums to gold, and the kookaburras began their chorus, I began to sing, softly. The songs my mother sang to me when I was young came slowly at first and then I remembered, and the words moved in circles around me, warm and low. I sat by the tall glass window, looking out. In the corner of the windowsill was a bowl of red sand. The sand was the red of ochre, the red of the rocks in my mother’s sacred circle down in the trees.
She was there as I sang, somehow. In the humming, silent space of her home, I could feel my mother’s body around mine. In this space I was her child, but also entirely my own: something between child and daughter and woman. They shimmered around me, the circle of woman bodies we made between us. Split-woman thing. I look at parts of me and I see her, and I wonder how I can be me if I am her as well. I remember very clearly the pink nubs of her nipples pricked white with milk drops. I can almost remember the taste.
Once, standing naked before a mirror, I bounced on the balls of my feet as slowly as I could. I watched my chest: the flesh, shifting as I moved, revealed sternum bones. I gazed, entranced. This, finally, was what I looked like as a woman. Flesh rounded like a cupped hand, pared back into runnels of muscle lining the stomach. Hints of hip bones and a shadow of muscle down the back but mostly it was this chest that drew my attention. The synchronicity of flesh that hung and swelled, that was both worn and ripe, that revealed the bone beneath and held itself calm, with assurance. This body knew itself—not completely, not even near—but it had begun to know itself.
I wonder sometimes what motherhood will look like on me. Who I will become. My bones will open out, my organs will move to make way for someone else. I will never be myself again, not like this, after I am a mother. I can’t imagine my breasts swollen and heavy but I’ve had dreams in which I have a baby. The dreams are not like other dreams. I wake in the morning grappling with a grief I don’t understand. I hardly know what I have lost in waking but I know I am missing something. As the day moves on the feeling fades: I lose my child bit by bit as I remember myself.
There is a mole on mum’s right hand between her index finger and thumb. I have one in the same place and it was years before I really saw it: I didn’t notice it because it was part of my mother’s body so it was part of mine. Sometimes I look down at my hands and I see hers playing the piano, making bread, pushing the lawnmower. The outlines of my hands blur.
I was angry at my mother because I was afraid she would die. When I am angry at my mother she becomes a bird. Her head tilts infinitesimally to the side, her eyes blink quickly in fear, just once. She is frightened of angering me. She knows I get frustrated when she forgets things, and when I see that she fears my response, my frustration flares.
But even in that moment, when I snapped at her for forgetting something trivial, and something went up between us, and I saw her pull away from me, away from the hurt I caused her, even then I knew that my anger was fear and I could feel something unravel in front of her.
‘I’m scared you won’t be all right if I’m not here,’ she told me, and the thing streaming down her face is what no daughter should ever see, is what no daughter should ever force from her mother. I fear losing her more than anything. It seizes me each time she forgets one of my friends’ names, each time she repeats something she has already told me. When she starts up a conversation with no context, I could guess what she’s talking about, but I interrupt her, force her to start from the beginning. I watch from afar as her father declines, borne away by the quicksand of dementia. I cannot bring myself to tell my mother that I fear, with exhausting panic, that she will slide away from me in this way too. The fear thunders inside, bursting out as anger, because I’m too afraid of what it means to beg her to stay with me, always.
As I sat in her home, looking up through the glass roof, my mother hovered in the scent of her rose geranium oil I was burning. She was present in the fibres of the red woollen cardigan I wrapped myself in. Under her bed I found the slippers that my grandmother had made her, and when I pulled them on, my feet slid perfectly into the space my mother’s feet had made.
That night I lay in her bed, cushioned by the sheepskin she tucked into the sheets before she left because she knows my back aches at night. I found myself rubbing at my smallest finger joint, pressing at that small scar, that small mark of home my mother gave me. I listened as wood ducks called to each other through the darkness. My mother loves the wood ducks. They hooted softly for a while before falling silent, until only the trees murmured outside and the moon watched on. •
Melanie Pryor writes about bodies and landscapes. Her memoir was highly commended in the AAWP Chapter One Prize 2017. Her writing has been published in Southerly, Overland and Lip magazine.