Ryan Everett Felton
“We are symbols, and inhabit symbols.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mother was an eccentric, yes, but for the first time in my adult life I can say without a doubt that she was perfectly sane.
The day we laid her to rest (that’s such a funny thing to say, isn’t it? “Laid to rest.”) I would have still told you she’d lived and died a madwoman. And you’d have agreed, if you’d seen her in that casket, brittle fingers clasping perfumed stationery to her powdered chest – and that bizarre symbol of hers scrawled in splotchy Indian ink on the page. It was to be buried with her, at her dying request.
Everyone else either ignored it or didn’t notice it there. I couldn’t look away, perhaps glad of another focal point besides her face. It was the same strange character I’d seen countless times. Her letter, she called it, and when I squinted and shunted disbelief I could imagine it some lost relic of a bygone alphabet.
I do not know where she found it: in a dream, graffitied in an alleyway, scribbled onto a bathroom stall. It must have been before I was born, because I cannot recall a time that she did not carry it with her in some form. She’d etch it onto napkins, draw it on business cards she kept in her wallet, even keep slips of paper bearing it in a locket around her neck.
As a girl I asked her once, “Mummy, what is that? A double-que?” To my young mind, the mark sometimes appeared as two Qs, mirrored and pressed together. Childhood logic demanded that all of the adults had simply neglected to tell me of W’s little sister.
“This is your mum’s special letter, Kulbinder,” she said, and I remember her knuckles going white around the note upon which she’d just drawn it. “And you mustn’t go showing anyone, understand?”
“Because they’ll only forget anyway, soon as they stop looking.” Her eyes, heavy even then with exhaustion and accelerated age, drooped down to me. She never withheld a thing from me, not anything I needed or wanted badly enough, so it troubled me some to read her expression then: she was not going to share. Not this time. “A long time ago, my grandmother made them to forget,” she said. “Then she gave it to my mummy. And she gave it to me. And one day I’ll give it to you, but not today.”
“But what’s it for?”
She smiled then, not with happiness, or even sadness. It was a smile of knowing. “It opens doors,” she said, and left me alone to my vocabulary lessons.
But that was a long time ago, twenty years before I’d find myself alone in the funeral parlour, hovering a hand over the strip of paper clasped to her embalmed body. A mist of sweat dusted my eyes, mixing with the tears already there. I licked my crumbling lips and held a breath, this bizarre avarice overcoming me. It ought to be mine now, I thought. It is mine now.
With my trembling fingers just centimetres away from the letter – her letter – I instead smacked the side of the casket and cursed under my breath.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” I heard someone say behind me. The mortician stood at the threshold to the lobby, rubbing his gorilla knuckles together. “We simply must close. The others’ve been gone a while, now.”
It was late. I nodded, ashamed, and left alone.
Trevor was already home when I shuffled in, half-asleep in the glow of the muted telly.
He sat up at the sound of the squealing door-hinge. “Kulbie?” he said. “All right, love?”
When I said nothing he stood, spilling a half-eaten bowl of sludge that was once cereal. It made me sad, how stupid he looked to me in that moment, so unsure of whether to clean his mess or console his bereaved wife.
Mother never cared for Trevor.
I walked past, toward the bedroom, while he started mopping up with his socks. It wasn’t much later that he followed me into bed and put a hand on my shoulder.
“You doing okay?” he said.
There being no answer for that, I said, “I was thinking,” because I was. “When I was, oh, thirteen maybe. There was this storm, this real bastard of rolling thunder and lightning that looked like veins. It scared the life from me. I was probably much too old by then, but I climbed into bed with Mum and she rocked me to sleep.”
In the dark I looked where Trevor’s eyes might be. I said, “That was sort of special for me. Do you think it would have been for her?”
“More than you know,” said Trevor. Then there was this awkward, half-graze of a kiss upon my cheek, and he rolled over. “G’night, Kulbie,” he said. I went, “Mm,” and turned away on my side.
Something crinkled at my hip. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a tiny scrap of paper, flicked on the bedside lamp.
There was mum’s letter, in my own handwriting.
“Well, I really think you ought to go into work.”
Trevor lurched over me, dressed and ready to face his day, while I wound myself further into the bed sheets. It was a week since the funeral. I’d used up all my holiday time by now, and this would be day two of his lecturing me.
“Do you hear me?” he said.
I nodded, my face consumed by pillow, and soon heard him leave. Turning over, I shielded my eyes from the sunlight pooling in through the window slats. Across the crook of my arm I could see the nightstand, littered with tiny bits of parchment like confetti. Some had fallen onto the bed and cascaded down now, fluttering to the floor, as I disturbed them. Each of them had the letter on it, the odd character I’d seen my mother carry with her my entire life. They were all scribbled down in my hand, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall drawing a one of them.
And for the life of me, I could not be concerned by this odd development.
As I’ve said, I spent the majority of my life believing my mother to be mad. That particular revelation first reared its head when, returning from grammar school one day, I walked into the kitchen for a snack and found her standing on the countertop, painting the symbol onto each of the ceiling fan’s blades. She was sobbing, noiseless, when I entered.
“Mum?” I’d backed away, fearful I had stumbled across some private thing.
And she fell to her knees, her black hair sticking out at all angles, and lunged forward atop the counter, like a hunting dog spotting fowl. Her face crazed, the face of a witch or a hag, she screamed at me. “Out!”
Things were never the same between us, not for me. There was always that threat looming, the possibility she’d snap and turn violent. And when, sometime in high school, I read in an article that certain psychoses were hereditary, I grew terrified that I’d become her one day. There could be no worse fate than to grow up into someone who already existed, deprived of the chance to add something new to the world.
I should mention she never hurt me, my mum. It was just that letter. So strange, and such odd behaviors it inspired in her.
And now that, it appeared, I was exhibiting some of those behaviors, I couldn’t muster up a scrap of worry over it. Everything about it felt normal now, and if I was drawing the thing over and over again in my sleep or something, then that was fine. With Mum gone, someone would need to.
At some point I rolled out of bed, stuffed a handful of drawn-upon paper bits into my pockets, and went into town. Had Trevor been there, or anybody, to ask me what I was doing or where I was going, I may have stopped. That might’ve stumped me, kept me home. But I was alone, so out the door I went.
It felt like sleepwalking, if sleepwalking has a feeling.
Here is what I remember about that afternoon:
As I’ve insinuated, I was in something of a stupor or state of wandering. On some level I was aware of this – scared, even – but my legs carried me wherever it was they wished to go, and ultimately I felt this was for the best.
I had a coconut curry at Delhi Deli, a dish that would have sent me running for a garbage can in years past, whenever Mum prepared it – as she so often did. The busboy asked me how she was doing, citing her as “the old lady you come in here with sometimes.” I told him she was very well, thank you, and left him a few quid for what must have been the first tip he’d ever received, by the look on his face.
On Fenchurch Street I found a bench and sat watching the cabbies go past, running my palm along the crinkly lump in my pocket. By the time the sun had moved a noticeable distance overhead, my eyes locked onto a tattoo parlour across the pavement. Nodding, I stood and stepped in, sliding one of my miniscule inscriptions of Mum’s letter – no, my letter – across the front desk to a man in a tank top and bowler hat. Through a curtained corridor came the unmistakable sounds of tattoo guns making their mark on the flesh of human beings.
The man rolled an unlit blunt across his teeth to the far side of his mouth. The tiny parchment strip could have been lost in the crevasse of his overlong fingernail, but he scooped it up with delicacy and eyeballed the unique character.
“Funny-lookin’ thing, innit?” he said, rubbing his nose with a scabby forearm. “That Chinese?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so,” I said.
Two red eyes narrowed in my direction. “You Chinese?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Do I need an appointment to have a tattoo done?”
The man inspected the letter stuck to his fingertip like it was a bogey. “You want this?” he said. I nodded, to which he said, “Usually I warn folks not to get any foreign letters tattooed on ‘em, ‘less they know what it means.”
My hand emerged from my purse clutching a credit card, which I slapped against the sticky countertop. “I know what it means,” I said.
Prying the card from the surface, he said, “An’ what’s it mean, then?”
“It opens doors,” I said.
Ten years ago I moved out of my mother’s house to marry Trevor. On the way out the door I told her I hated her, and I meant it. But time changes things. It makes us soft. The exact timeline of things escapes me, but at some point I started visiting her again, every Wednesday for dinner.
It was during one of these visits I last confronted her about the letter. Fear and a kind of stifling respect had prevented me from doing so for years, but on this particular evening Mum was quieter than usual. Her telly was on the fritz, and so it was boredom more than anything that moved me to point at a framed calligraphic rendering of the symbol and ask, “You never told me, I don’t think. Where did that come from?”
Eyes widening, she draped her bottom lip over her teeth and said, “I did tell you, Kulbinder. Great-grandmum took it for the family, for us ladies. Plucked it right from the end of the alphabet like a plum.” She pantomimed picking fruit from a tree. “It’s mine now, but be a good girl, and maybe it’ll be yours one day. But it’s just for us. Not your friends. Not that husband. They won’t remember it anyway.”
And what did I say to that?
“You’re mental, Mum.” Then I hugged her, and sometime after took the tube home and never mentioned the thing aloud again.
Trevor hit me when I got home from the tattoo parlour.
Not hit me hit me, just a little tap on the temple to get my attention. He’d been asking about the tattoo on my back for, oh, a few minutes to no reply. It’s not that I didn’t respect his question or want to answer. It just seemed imprudent somehow, or improper, really.
It occurred to me that whatever my answer, he’d just forget and ask again tomorrow anyway.
Funny thing is, I don’t remember what I told him. Maybe nothing. Maybe he went to bed angry with me. It didn’t seem to matter.
What mattered, what really mattered at eleven p.m. that night, was that I take a permanent marker, climb onto the stepstool, and draw the letter on each blade of the ceiling fan in our lounge. I’d seen it done somewhere before, in some distant memory, and at the time it had appeared to be rather dire that it get done.
So it was now.
When I finished, a little lightheaded from the marker ink, I eyed my handiwork. Frowning, I lamented my poor penmanship: I would never be able to write the letter quite like she had, no matter how many times I did it. I’d always fall short, in other words.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mum,” I said to no one. Then I flicked the switch and sent the fan spinning.
Round and round it went, faster and faster, the four facsimiles of the symbol swirling in my vision until they bled into one another, became a black streak. A ring of shadow.
Something peculiar happened then. From within the black ring, the light fixture grew blinding bright, shone down like a spotlight in a perfect cylinder. This permeable, white column sprang from my lounge ceiling to the floor and throbbed in time with the whirring of the fan.
It was too brilliant to look at straight-on for a minute or two. At a certain point my eyes adjusted and allowed me to inspect it, this incredible beam.
There were people inside it. Women. Faces obscured by the light, but they were smiling, I could tell.
And I knew one of them was my mother.
Listening for the padded footsteps of my husband, I drew nearer to the light beam. It wasn’t until I was close enough to touch it that I stopped thinking of it as a light beam and began to think of it as what it was:
Inside my chest it was hot, like after stepping up to a bonfire at wintertime and taking a deep breath. The women inside smiled at me, and I returned their docile greeting.
I stepped in.
It felt good. It felt like dying, if dying has a feeling.
I want to tell you another story about my mum. It happened the same night she cradled the thirteen-year-old me to sleep amidst a raging thunderstorm. I had zonked out in her arms, but in the night I awoke with her still beside me.
Judging from the movement of her body, it was apparent she was either crying or laughing.
I’d always assumed she was crying for some reason. I don’t know; like I said, I always thought she was a complete nutter.
Now I know she was laughing. I know why, too.
I know because I asked her. I visit her every Wednesday.