Emissary from the Burning World
When I was a small child, my mother’s eyes turned into glass marbles.
“She has schizophrenia,” said Grandma Peterson, as she cooked spaghetti in her kitchen, in her house where my father took us to live. She peered down into the pot of boiling water as if there lay the secret of that big word. Grandma Peterson was an excellent cook, said everyone. But not for children and not spaghetti. She was little and stiff, and her blue-checked apron didn’t really fit around her work outfit, which was a tweed skirt with a matching blazer. The steam rose up and her wooden spoon knocked against the inside of the pot.
What was that word? What did our mother have? And where did she go? I mean, where did she actually go so that she wasn’t in our house and we now lived with Grandma Peterson? But also, where did she go before, when her eyes stopped being her?
Other grown-ups said that sentence too, the one about the schizophrenia, but it didn’t make things any clearer just because more people said it. In fact, what life became for us, the three children of that mother, before somebody drove her (or what looked like her) away, can be better said by something like this, but not exactly this. If you know children whose mother went away to a mental hospital, listen closely, because though they will try to fool you by lining up on the couch with folded hands or drawing pictures of flowers and dinosaurs, this is what it’s like when the mother goes into the burning world.
The house is closed in, like a spaceship. Gravity is lost. We float. The air is thick with molecules. No one comes to the door, as if it closed up, the seam erased, like a spaceship door. We would like to escape but can’t. We have to watch her like hawks. None of the grownups know. We have no words to tell them, not our father nor our grandmother nor our other grandmother nor the next-door neighbor Mrs. Jacobson, who laughs like a bell. Mrs. Jacobson sits on the couch and laughs, one leg balanced on the other in blue pants. My mother’s hand picks at the small red pillow. Her mouth is a line. Does Mrs. Jacobson see? Will she go for help? But Mrs. Jacobson goes home and no one comes to save us. We wait and wait.
My mother’s words are little doors into the burning world. Yes, her words are like little doors. We don’t know what they mean. We’re too small. But they drip, those words, those doors, they drip and sag and shift like living things. “They’re coming,” my mother says, her eyes wide and cracked, like the window my father keeps forgetting to fix. “They’re coming to cut out my brain,” she says.
We look at her, at her shuttered eyes. There is no way in, where a light used to be. I remember a used-to-be window and a lighted world, a window you could step through. Now her lap is a wooden platform, like the cold dock by the sea. Her arms hang straight at her sides. Her dark hair, her long pulled-back hair, grips at her forehead. Her eyes are not caverns, not caves or lakes or deep pools or wells. They are cracked ice, tin mirrors.
The only way in are the words. We grab at them. They fly around the room, those words, hitting the piano, the brown braided rug, the chair that slumps on one side.
They will cut me, she says,
their long surgical knives.
What house is this? she asks,
And Who are you?
We learn that inside her is the burning world. We, her children, don’t exist in the burning world. We are ghost bodies, remnants of another life that drift specter-like around her in the dark night of her daily life. We are like the air, like her breath, which has become sour. She holds the words inside until the grownups leave. I turn away. My baby sister cries, my brother looks out the window and sees snow, though we live in Los Angeles. “Let’s go to the fountain,” he says, “where the other children play. We’ll scrape snow off the edge of the fountain and make snowballs to throw.” I join him at the window. We look at the brown grass and see snow.
The other mother had soft skin like the head of a chick. This mother’s skin is taut, electric. It hums, the current never stops, current like charge not water, current like a jaguar, running.
In the burning world, grown-ups become children and children stare like owls. I protect my father from the burning world. I am seven years old. There is so much he doesn’t know, poor man, about the burning world, its many forms of burning, the flame, the Clorox bleach, the oven door, her very eyes themselves that glow like ice. We need him to keep steady, to keep the boat afloat. It flounders. It flounders with every step, every misstep.
Even these words I must destroy. I reach out to pull them back, to keep them hidden. We cannot reveal the burning world. It’s a secret world full of fire and wind and wild things that look like humans.
We live, buoyed up by fairy tales, by music, by each other. We play music, the guitar, the piano, the banjo, the oboe, the viola, the French Horn. We check our instruments out from school and lug them home, the long hot Los Angeles blocks. We listen together to Peter and the Wolf, moving the needle back to the beginning of the record, then back again, let’s start it again. Prokofiev is a long word, like schizophrenia. In the burning world, the story of Peter and the Wolf makes the deepest sense. In that story, kind Grandfather says never pass the garden gate. And yet there Peter goes, he doesn’t listen. Peter is so brave and foolish. The duck is gobbled up and trapped in the belly of the wolf. Peter grabs the wolf by the tail and ties him up and marches in the parade and the duck quacks, trapped in the wolf’s belly. What kind of bird are you that you can’t fly? asks the sparrow. What kind of bird are you that you can’t swim, asks the duck. But the duck is wrong. We all know that. Flying is the better way. A real bird knows how to fly. The duck rides along, trapped, in the belly of the wolf.
At school I learn to play the oboe. It is the duck’s voice, the sound of living in the belly of the wolf. It’s a useful instrument to the children of the burning world because the duck sings out: I live! It joins in the parade of humans and beasts. My brother and sister learn to play the French horn, the instrument of the rescuers, the hunters who come too late. The horn sounds like a long, clear bell—we’re coming to rescue you! But it is all too late for the duck, who cries out in darkness, I’m here, I’m here, what kind of a bird am I that I can’t fly?
We must keep an eye on the burning world. The burning world is strangely alive. It sucks the color from the house, the yard. Our lives become gray. We live in haze and darkness, on the edge of the smoldering dangers of the burning world, the real world, where color blazes up without warning. We learn to watch our mother’s eyes. Those eyes are the way in, yet they grow more still and solid the more real the burning world becomes. They warn us. Sometimes we hide but she knows where to find us, to root us out, to touch us with her burning hands.
We learn that flying doesn’t come easy to humans. It can only happen in dreams, in the beautiful world of the mind’s eye, the created world. We each have one, inside, secret, warm, full of our inventions. I wish I could see into my brother’s world and my sister’s, but I can’t. I can’t even ask to see.
In my secret world there are tiny people who can fit in your hand. They zip around like birds. They live in a deep forest with no houses, no walls, no doors that close. They zip and pick berries, blueberries and black caps, salmonberries and strawberries. Their faces are smeared with sweet jelly. Their feet never touch the ground. They are me and not me. When a voice calls to them, an old voice, a voice full of light, they fly towards it, dipping this way and that, full of laughter, full of love.
Mary Wood lives in Oregon with her partner Grace, her two cats, and one very old dog. She teaches literature and medical humanities at the University of Oregon. Her greatest teacher was her mother, who lived and struggled with schizophrenia for over three decades. She has published short fiction and memoir in The Missouri Review, The Capra Review, and Midway Journal. She’s also published personal essays in British Journal of Medical Ethics (under pseudonym Mary E. Ladd), and as a chapter in her book Life Writing and Schizophrenia: Encounters at the Edge of Meaning (Brill, 2013). She writes memoir, personal essays, and short stories and is currently working on a novel.
A Song for Mary