My mother collects names like currency for all the children she will never have. She shoves the scribbly scraps of paper anywhere they will fit—lumpy under the floorboard mats of her Toyota Corolla, stacked in the kitchen pantry behind off-brand strawberry granola bars and year-old rice packets, tucked into empty photo albums. Dream children swim in her morning coffee, tread half & half for three minutes to pass the swim test. They’re growing—not in her uterus, but further up her body, in the hollow space of her sad and birdlike chest where her heart should be, building a world anew where she is young, pretty, mother of six or eight or ten. Where no name goes unused. But her inside world doesn’t match her reality, so when she calls me from the kitchen—says, Zion, don’t forget your rain jacket, or Did you eat the rest of the ice cream, Zion? I hear the weight of deep dissatisfaction between the syllables—the remorse of having no other children to call jumbled with a panicky gratitude of having one other body in the house, not being completely alone.
I’m not young and cute and small anymore, not how Mama likes. She sits at the kitchen table now, watching me microwave a frozen burrito. Wincing at my heavy footfalls, as if the concept of my grown body taking up space hurts her. The microwave glows yellow-dark, humming radiation over my dinner, and I don’t look at her. Outside, a starling taps on the empty bird feeder Aunt Lindsey gave Mama for Christmas, bulbous black eye glistening in the evening light, looking in at us, longing. Mama doesn’t buy seed for the bird feeders, lets them hang empty all over the house and garden, but Lindsey keeps giving her new ones—over and over, every year like a VHS cassette tape replaying the same family Christmas morning that never lived up to Mama’s expectations.
“I can’t believe my baby’s leaving for college so soon.” Mama stands up suddenly, exhales loud and slow. “Guess you’re not really my baby anymore, seeing how you’re all big and grown up.” A pause. “You have gotten so big, haven’t you? Feels like yesterday you were smaller than Bird, now here you are.” She searches for something—a good word, a way to say something kind. “You’re a man now Zion.”
Bird was our easygoing Labrador mix that Mama got rid of when I was in middle school—the budget was too tight for dog food, she said. He wasn’t a big dog as far labs go, I think I was taller than him by the time I was four or five. I heard Mama talking to Lindsey at a family reunion once, and she said her favorite age to mother was babies just beginning to walk, when we toddle around all tiny and confused and happy. She laughed, patted Lindsey’s shoulder, said it all goes downhill from there. My mother is obsessed with beautiful little things that can’t talk back. She laments aloud sometimes that when I was a baby, I barely laughed or cried or made any noise at all, really—just slept and ate and pissed, then slept again. That I had an unnatural penchant for silence, a haunting quiet that mimicked the absence of my father, who left in search of more fertile lands, dreaming of becoming the father of all nations.
I leave for college in twelve days. In the Bible, twelve is a holy number—twelve apostles of Jesus, twelve tribes of Israel. According to the book of Revelation, the kingdom of God boasts twelve gates guarded by twelve great angels. I only know these things because Mama used to declare my body holy, said: I named you Zion for a reason. Named you for the holy city, because you were made from holy love. Since then, I have long stopped seeing my body as a holy thing, but the sentiments remain.
Outside, the starling gives up its melancholic search for seed, lifts itself out into the sunset expanse and flies off until it’s only a black spot in the distance. I haven’t told my mother goodbye yet. I haven’t told her that although I want to leave this house and never come back, I’d feel guilty deserting her because I know she has no one else. The microwave beeps, long and pitchy, and I peel my dinner off the plastic tray. Maybe Mama can start talking aloud to her dream children when I am gone—call them all by name. Maybe my mother will change and heal. For now, I choose to reply in the way she loves most: silence.