When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my back turned red and scaly. I couldn’t stop scratching it, with my fingernails first, then with a dry loofah. In the end, I resorted to a knitting needle that cut through my flesh and left my skin covered in scabbed welts.
You fret too much, Mum said, nursing her third Martini.
I helped her shave her head and shaved mine in sympathy. Mum put on her silver sequined dress from the 1974 Oscars afterparty and lay down on her bed, her glitter stilettos still on. I sat at her feet and brushed my back against her heels. For a moment, the itching disappeared.
'Pass me the cigarettes,' she said.
I tried to negotiate but she said dying people don’t need to be reasonable. Death never was.
She smoked until her skin turned gray and she doubled on the rouge.
We developed a routine for her outfits. Mondays were silk shirts and fox fur collars, Tuesdays were about leather trousers and fedora hats. Wednesdays were exotic belts, sometimes worn as necklaces. Thursdays for taffeta gowns from post-war optimistic times, Fridays for fresh cotton and linen. Weekends were about cashmere because she loved the cuddling her cardigans offered.
I expected her to make room for me in those cardigans. Some were big enough to welcome a junior league football team. I mentioned once or twice that I was chilly, but she waved her hand as though she was dismissing her loyal maid and said, ‘You must be tired, go to bed now.’
Before the fourth fox-fur-and-silk Monday Mum was gone, in the same rush she’d always lived.
During her funeral, a cast of white crabs crept up her cherry wood casket and hypnotised us with their ensemble of rasping claws. The priest watched them seize the altar and when they got too close to the wafers, he screamed and tried to smash them with the gospel. My mother, a Cancer, had found a way from wherever she was now, to steal the scene one last time.
I went home and fell into her cupboard, deep and dark as Alice’s rabbit hole. Mum’s shoes and bags and scarves and belts and hats fell after me and until I found my way out of the heap, I feared I would die there, buried alive under hundreds of thousands of dollars of clothes.
For seven nights I slept down the cupboard hole. For seven days Mum’s fox fur collar caressed my cheek in the morning to wake me. Her leather belt pulled on my toes while the silk one stroked my arms. Still lying down, I’d clad a cashmere cardigan over my shoulders, the warmest hug. For lunch I nibbled at the linen shirts, crisp and fresh like lettuce. For dinner, I had a steak of conditioned Spanish boots, solid and earthy. Mum’s colorful silk shirts were wonderful squeezed, especially the bow ties. An injection of vitamins and good mood.
When the week was over, I decided to put the house on sale. Many people came to visit but I was still down the hole, the feather boas tugging at my knees, not wanting to let me go. I left a note for the visitors, said I was abroad, and they could make themselves comfortable in my absence.
The thin alligator belt that had been my grandmother’s climbed upstairs and slithered over the carpet, keeping an eye on all those strangers coming in throughout the day. People do curious things when they think no one is watching. A pregnant woman started doing Kegel exercises on the kitchen floor. Her husband filmed her. Two anxious fathers put down their child in the crib that had been mine to see if he fit inside.
On the eighth day the boas released me, and I could crawl up to the surface. The clothes followed me, each returning to its place in the cupboard. For the first time in six weeks, my back didn’t itch. I ran a hand over my shoulder blades and found a soft, round lump on each side.
I signed up to a resale website and filled in my profile. I chose a picture of Faye Dunaway because my mother despised her. They had been in love with the same man and, clearly, he hadn’t chosen Mum.
I lay the clothes flat, the boots up and the stilettos coquettishly on the mantel piece. The belts I fastened around a mannequin’s wasp waist, the hats I filled with silk paper.
It took me four weeks to go through the 3532 pieces my mother had hoarded during her lonely days and nights. She had taste.
Four hundred and three days later everything was gone.
The last piece to sell was her leopard-print fur. I took it off the website several times, put it back on. It kept me warm at night and it was still February. It smelled of berries and vanilla. In the end, I chose a beautiful box for it, mauve with a gold ribbon. I wrapped it in purple silk paper. I kissed it goodbye before taping it shut.
When the woman at UPS took it to the storage place in the back, I felt a prickle and a pull around my shoulder blades, as if I was carrying a heavy backpack. Six steps out the door, I realised I had grown wings. White and majestic wings. I got on pointe and pushed down my toes against the sidewalk. I took off, and never set foot on Earth again.
-- Eleonora Balsano’s short fiction has won or has been placed in several international competitions and is featured in Portland Review, Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, Micro Podcast, and elsewhere. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. Eleonora lives in Brussels, E.U. with her husband, their three sons and a feisty dog named Sidney.