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Cycles of the Moon
This piece is more of a short story. It is meant to convey meaning rather than detail, which is why much of the piece is vague and left to interpretation by the reader.
The flame ignited in a fountain of orange and yellow, its reflection swaying and shuddering in the child’s emerald eyes. She stood there, watching, admiring, stuck in the trance that the fire had incited. It rested atop the towering candle that took up half of the marble cake, providing the sole source of light in the dark room and illuminating the child’s even darker hair. The girl’s mother moved closer to rest her arms on her daughter’s shoulders and began to sing “Happy Birthday.” The party guests joined in soon after.
It was a discordant sound—many would have walked away hurriedly with their hands clamped tight over their ears after hearing only three seconds of it. But the smile on the girl’s face was unwavering, brighter than the purest of pearls to have ever appeared in the ocean. Her joy was contagious, and soon everyone was grinning and laughing as they sang their inharmonious tune.
The girl closed her eyes and mumbled a few words before using all of her strength to blow out the candle. A chorus of claps filled the air as she turned to face her mother, who had leaned down next to her while the child was making her wish.
“What did you wish for?” her mother asked.
The child’s grin grew even bigger.
“I wished that you would always be happy.”
The guests’ “awww”s filled the air, and the woman moved to hold her child’s face in her hands. She looked at her daughter with a combination of fondness and pride—the kind of pride that only a mother would understand, for the child had not aced a test or achieved some great feat, yet the admiration that filled her heart was greater than it could have been even if the child had done such a thing. Perhaps it was because her daughter was growing up so quickly. Or maybe the emotion was so profound because the woman did not have a husband to help carry the weight of the moment. But it didn’t matter—the feeling was one that warranted no explanation.
“Well, what’s more important is that you stay happy,” the mother said. In one swift motion, she swiped some frosting from the edge of the cake and brushed it onto her giggling daughter’s cheeks. Then she nodded to her left, and the child watched curiously as a man who had been patiently waiting in the corner left the room and returned with a large kennel in his hands.
He unlocked the kennel’s door.
A coffee-colored dachshund cautiously stepped out.
The girl squealed and fell to her knees. She stretched out her arms while her mother knelt beside her, and the dachshund’s small steps progressed into huge leaps as he bounded toward the beaming girl. He proceeded to lick the frosting off of her cheeks while her melodious laughter echoed in the small space, bringing more warmth to the room than any fire ever could.
She stood in front of the mirror, analyzing every inch of her face, her body, her hair, desperately searching for a single feature that she didn’t utterly despise. Her expression was cold and calculating, her thoughts racing faster than she’d ever believed they could. Her classmates’ words played in her mind on repeat until each syllable, each letter, each pause was ingrained in her brain.
You have bigger cheeks than my brother...and he’s a baby.
At least I don’t have man arms like she does.
Bro, one wipe and she’s a whole different person underneath all that makeup.
She had kept her face neutral and tried to deal with the insults as best she could at school. But building a brick facade couldn’t stop the comments from taking up residence in her soul. They’d established roots and refused to leave, and the more she tried to keep building that wall and act indifferent, the harder it was to make sure she didn’t flood the cracks with her own insecurities.
It was as if those few words had enough impact to unplug the cork that kept her worst feelings hidden away.
There was no end to that waterfall.
The girl leaned forward to examine her skin and noticed a half-formed pimple protruding from the tip of her nose. Her hair was frizzy and tangled from the mid-August heat, and attempting to run a brush through it only exacerbated her frustration. Despite the burden of her own emotions, she refused to cry. She refused to let herself succumb to what others had to say—they weren’t allowed to have that power over her. But still, the girl couldn’t bring herself to walk away from the mirror. Focusing on her flaws had become a strange sort of addiction. She could no longer look at herself and see anything other than the imperfections.
The bathroom door creaked open to reveal her mother’s concerned face.
“I’ve been calling you for five minutes now. Have you been in here this whole time?”
The girl didn’t respond. She couldn’t even turn around. She was an unsuspecting fly caught in a spider’s web, unable to move any of her limbs.
Her mother’s face softened as she realized what her daughter was doing. She placed a hand on her back and led the girl to the living room couch. They sat down, their dachshund by their feet, and the girl’s mother immediately wrapped her arms around her.
“Whatever happened, don’t let it get to you. Their insults say more about who they are as people than they do about you.” The mother leaned back to look her daughter in the eye, brushing a stray strand of hair behind the girl’s ear. “Have I ever told you about the time I went skydiving and forgot how to operate my parachute?”
The girl’s eyes went wide.
Rubber tires rolled to a stop on the inky asphalt road. Blush pink roses had been meticulously placed on the white limousine’s hood and windshield, and the wedding guests turned to admire the sight. One of them almost spilled their glass of champagne in the process. Soft jazz music played in the background as the bride and groom said their goodbyes to their closest friends and relatives.
The bride walked over to her mother, her heart heavy with guilt for leaving the only true family she’d ever known. She took her mother’s hands in hers, and they stared at each other for a long moment while silently communicating their thoughts. This had always worked surprisingly well in the past—they were so in tune with each other that words had hardly ever been necessary. Yet, at that moment, there was no method of communication that could even begin to convey what they needed to express.
The bride gave up on her attempt at having a heartfelt goodbye.
“I’ll call you every single day,” the bride said.
“And I’ll visit you even when you don’t want to see me.”
“I’m counting on it.”
The bride watched as the spring breeze pulled loose a strand of her mother’s carefully styled hair, and then she leaned in for a much-needed hug.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you more,” her mother whispered in return.
Her mother let out a deep, dramatic sigh. Her melancholy expression slowly transformed as the corners of her lips ticked up slightly, and she walked—with her daughter’s hand still in hers—towards the groom, who had been waiting patiently at the other side of the venue.
“I’ll always be here whenever you need me. But it’s time for you to start this new chapter of your life on your own. Now go,” the older woman said, gently pushing the bride towards her husband.
With one last glance at her mother, the bride turned around, and the couple made their way to the limousine parked at the edge of the sidewalk. The setting sun painted the vehicle in streaks of purple and pink and yellow, the amalgam of colors reflecting the ambivalence of the occasion. The air was filled with a joyful sadness, a sweet bitterness, a concoction of feelings that everyone felt but no one fully understood.
The slam of the vehicle’s door jolted the bride out of her thoughts. She grabbed her husband’s arm for comfort and didn’t dare move an inch. Stillness was her remedy for anxiety. It forced her body to slow down and allowed her to focus on staying immobile instead of on her worries.
As the limousine pulled away from the curb, the bride raised her head to look out the tinted windows. A sea of hands waved at her. She raised her own hand in response, and as she did, she spotted her mother’s face in the crowd: stoic, determined, and impossible to miss.
The bride let out a small gasp.
A single tear had slid down her mother’s cheek, crumbling the iron facade that the woman had struggled so hard to maintain for the entirety of the wedding.
In the 22 years that she had been alive, the bride had never seen her mother cry.
“You mentioned that your mother seemed to be acting out of character when she stayed with you and your husband for the weekend, yes?” The therapist crossed her legs and leaned forward slightly.
The woman was sitting in the chair across from her, drawing circles on her fingertip with her thumb and avoiding eye contact. Her mouth felt like it was stuffed full of bricks; it took several tries to successfully get any words out.
“Y-yeah. She was always active, lively. Always ready to go out. But she seemed really tired that weekend. That was the first sign that something was wrong, and...I brushed that off like it was nothing...”
“What was wrong?”
“Well…we were at a restaurant eating dinner, me and my husband. My mother had stayed home to take a nap. Then I got a call. It was a-a nurse, and she told us that my mother had called for an ambulance. We were so shocked that we dropped everything and rushed to the hospital as fast as we could, and there my mother was, lying in a bed, barely able to speak.” The woman paused. “The doctor told us that-that she’d had a brain tumor for years. Years. The symptoms had kicked in with full force j-just that evening.” Her voice began to shake as she relived the memory in her mind. It felt too real. Too horrifying.
“Take your time,” the therapist said.
“When...the doctor told me that, I couldn’t process it. I never once suspected that my mother had any sort of health condition. I-I mean, she was always exercising and never ate fast food—she was a health freak! I couldn’t believe it. She wouldn’t look at me when I turned to her, and that’s when I realized she’d kept it a secret since the day she found out…”
“Did your mother tell you why she kept it a secret?”
“No. She…she couldn’t say anything no matter how hard she tried, so she gave me a random book instead. She looked at the book with so much affection that I knew it was important. I took it without a word. And...and then she grabbed my hands and smiled up at me like she was trying to tell me that everything would be okay, even though we both knew that it wouldn’t.” A deep breath in. A sharp exhale. “I stayed at the hospital all night while she was getting surgery, but…” Her voice became smaller. “She didn’t make it.”
The therapist’s expression morphed into one that had recently become all too familiar to the woman—sympathy. “Your mother sounds like she was a great person.” The woman’s mouth refused to open again, so instead of responding, she just nodded and accepted the glass of water that the therapist handed her.
As she sat there with the glass of water, unmoving, her eyes tracked the therapist's pen while it glided across the clipboard in rapid little movements. She honed in on the scratching sound it made and let it echo within the walls of her head, but it was useless. No matter how hard she tried, the woman couldn’t stop herself from thinking about her mother. Her best friend.
She was dead.
The thought of her mother dying had never crossed the woman’s mind before. She was naive to think that all that was good would never end—to never consider that her life support might have needed support as well.
“What have you been doing since that day in the hospital?”
The woman had intended for therapy to help her get temporary relief from the tsunami in her head, but she started to realize that the whole process aggravated her more than it helped her.
“I’ve been thinking. A lot. Mainly wondering how in the world my mother could have kept her brain tumor a secret. If she had just-just told me, we could have gotten it treated, and she would still be here…” The woman’s words trailed off as she began to recall that they’d never had much money when she was growing up. And yet her brain flashed back to her mother’s elatedness when she was planning her wedding—she didn’t hold back a single penny so she could ensure her daughter’s big day was as special as possible.
What if she didn’t get treatment…because she was saving the money for me? For my wedding? Guilt seeped through every crevice in her body as her mind lingered on the startling idea.
How could her mother have risked her life...for a wedding?
The woman shut her eyes to try to distance herself from the world. She wanted to exist outside of time and space, to feel nothing and think empty thoughts, to avoid the regret that had been shredding every piece of her composure. She could vaguely sense that the therapist had started talking again, but the sound of the turbulent waves that crashed within the woman's head overpowered everything around her.
“Would you like to change the subject?”
Words in tiny, neat cursive had been printed on the scrapbook’s front cover: To the love of my life—I don’t deserve a daughter as amazing as you. Glow-in-the-dark moon stickers sat perfectly spaced along the edges. The woman had left the book untouched since the day her mother had given it to her, but she finally felt ready to open it.
So she did.
The scrapbook had a page for every major event in the woman’s life; the very first one contained a photo of her exhausted mother in a hospital bed with a wailing baby in her arms, while others were for her first birthday, the day she started preschool, her high school and college graduation ceremonies, and her wedding day. As she took in all of the photos, her forgotten memories began to resurface—memories that she had repressed to ease some of the pain that came with her mother’s death. But oddly enough, she didn’t feel pain while flipping through the scrapbook.
She felt nostalgia.
The woman continued to leaf through the pages, her sentimental smile growing bigger and bigger with each photo, but she stopped when she reached the last page.
It was empty.
Her mother had died before she could finish the book.
The woman got up to grab a few materials from her desk before sitting back down and carefully cutting a sheet of construction paper. She glued it onto the empty page and titled it in bold blue words: It’s A Boy! She placed a photo underneath depicting the woman holding her newborn son at the hospital—it was almost identical to the photo on the first page. The caption was a small paragraph: To my mother, who gave me her all even when she had nothing left to give. You now have a grandson, just like you always hoped. Finally, the woman decorated the border with the same stickers that her mother had used for the other pages, and when she finished, she closed the book and held it against her chest.
The scrapbook was finally complete.
A piece of her was replaced in her body: she was whole again. The drowning sensation that had suffocated her for the past three years finally began to dissipate, and she closed her eyes to relish the newfound satisfaction that blossomed in her stomach and seeped into her limbs.
After a long moment, the woman picked up her son, carefully placed him in her lap, and gently rocked him back and forth.
“My mother used to tell me stories about her childhood all the time. Would you like to hear some stories that I have?” she asked her son, knowing all too well that he had no choice but to listen. He cooed in response, and she took that as her cue to open the scrapbook and start with the story about the day she came into the world.
The two of them stayed like that for the rest of the afternoon: the woman passionately telling him all the wondrous tales of her life, her son babbling every few minutes as he listened intently to the obscure English words. As the woman flipped to the last page, a teardrop unexpectedly dropped from her eye, saturating a portion of the paper below. She wiped her cheek and brushed her thumb against the damp spot on the book—the book that took decades to build and would continue to live for decades more.
The woman looked down at her son to see his eager face staring back up at her, and suddenly, a strange emotion began to settle in her body. One that was a combination of fondness and pride and warranted no explanation. One that imbued her heart with infinite admiration. One that her mother had felt at her fifth birthday party 23 years ago.
The feeling was one that only a mother could understand.