by Emma Moore
We stand in a strange formation, the four of us in a row. My sister, my mother, her mother and me, like geese who have flown for the south, in this case not fleeing the winter, but braving it. We’ve come here to be here. It’s midway through the sticky Carolina summer and we are packed in a room with no air conditioner that is growing ever hotter as it slowly fills up with bodies. No one is comfortable, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve reached across my mother to grab a tissue from my grandmother’s purse to pat the sweat from my face, hoping my makeup hasn’t smudged.
One of my youngest cousins, one who was little for too long when I was growing up and so will always be a baby in my eyes, is taller than I am now, and her sense hasn’t quite caught up with her body just yet. She’s all legs in a black dress that might have been all right before she grew four inches in the last six months. Her pink and blonde hair and high heels would make me shake my head if I hadn’t been fifteen five minutes ago. Still, my sister catches my eye and we watch as she walks, her teetering baby deer legs and twig ankles balanced precariously on ill-advised stilettos.
I grin and my sister purses her lips. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a nearly identical exchange pass between my mother and grandmother. My mother and grandmother, my sister and me. We seem to be of one mind today.
I stand to the left of my sister, holding her hand. Hers is sweaty and I do mind, but not enough to let go. It is infinitely strange, the reason we’re here, an absurd concept. No matter how mature you think you are, you will never be calm enough, wise enough, strong enough not to feel a keen sense of the pure and bitter wrongness that is seeing the aunt you just saw at Christmas wearing the maroon sweater with the bells and the reindeer, the same sweater she’d worn the Christmas before and the Christmas before and the Christmas before, packed in a satin-lined box like a sausage tin.
There is an ache that isn’t exactly sadness growing from the back of my chest to the front. The sensation is closer to fear, but with a slower burn. It is a jarring reminder that this darkness won’t wait for me to catch up or understand. It’s a simple lack of comprehension, an inability to cast a mental net around that wrongness no matter which way you angle it. It’s a vague sense of creeping terror, a sharp kick in the mortality. It isn’t enough to make me run from the room screaming, but it’s just enough to make my sister’s palms sweat and my eyes burn. That empty ache is awful, maybe even unbearable, when you are alone. That’s why we stand in our little formation, overgrown geese not speaking or praying, doing nothing at all except standing and existing in the same place, breathing the same air. And somehow, just being in close proximity to one another makes the strangeness that sits unassumingly in the long wooden box bearable.
Her daughters—my cousins—stand apart from us in a formation of their own, but theirs is altered in a way that seems irreparable. Where ours is tall and strong, and I feel like we could stand up against a hurricane, they are hunched as though to preempt a blow, warding off those who might find their new weak spot. They curl in on themselves in a pitiful attempt to warn that cold, empty gap left behind by the soldier who has abandoned her post.
I stare at my oldest cousin, the rebellious one, whose Doc Marten boots and Walkman blaring The Pixies earned her a spot as a brief but cherished childhood idol of mine, the one whose face is not quite pretty, but is pleasantly odd and one of my favorites to see. As I watch, she and her sister close ranks around their mother; our strength is in our numbers and no one knows this better than southern mothers and daughters and granddaughters. We are uniquely qualified to take care of another, drafted into this army at birth. We accept our duty, no questions asked.
I’m watching them stand close, holding one another up without touching and wondering how it is that they can do that, when I see it. It is clear, the cord connecting them. I wonder how I’ve never noticed before. It seems so obvious now that I’ve noticed as it returns the glittering light to the relentless sun streaming in through the window, opened, I imagine, by some well-meaning undertaker in an effort to make the room feel less claustrophobic and put the mourners at ease. This endeavor fails on both counts but does somehow manage to make the room even hotter. There is no breeze in mid-July.
I’m fascinated by that cord I see twining together the women across the room from me, but almost afraid as I look for the broken bit. Surely there is a spot where it is snapped and frayed now, considering the hit they just took to their number.
But it is not broken or fraying anywhere that I can see. It is intact and carries on in either direction long past the point where my eyes fail.
And there is a matching cord coming from somewhere behind my ribs. When I concentrate, I can feel how it has looped itself twice sideways and once crossways around my heart in a secure knot. I guess it’s made out of something like fishing line because I can’t think of a stronger cord that’s still thin enough to be near invisible.
And as soon as I can see it, I remember it, recognize the familiar pull of it tightening around my chest. It doesn’t hurt, but at the same time, it will not be ignored. When I was younger, I remember being afraid of its power over me. I worried whoever was in charge of pulling it would use their power injudiciously, yanking me places I didn’t want to be with no respect for my freedom. I didn’t understand the mechanics of it then, because it’s today, in that hot, sticky room filled with my relatives, some I know as well as I know my brothers and some who are not much more than beloved strangers, that it told me its story.
It doesn’t have a name but it has been around for as long as there have been mothers and daughters. Its purpose is to be a safety net for those who need it, a comfort for those who seek it, and a loving reminder for us to safely keep it. It is the tie that binds us together and when I touch it, I can see my mother on roller skates, her hair cut short like a boy, her face round and darkly tanned. I see the sky grow dim and watch the streetlights turn on, one by one. I can hear my grandmother calling her in for dinner.
I can see my grandmother holding her little white dog, watching her mother piece together the quilt that now lies at the end of my mother’s bed. I can see her run her little hands over it, the way I did when I was small, loving the blue velvet patches most of all.
I can see my grandmother cry in her own mother’s arms as her boyfriend’s truck pulls out of the driveway, bound for college, taking her heart along with him. I can see my mother’s bewilderment as she stares cruelty in the face for the very first time in the form of three seventh grade girls who have not yet learned to cope with their own insecurity.
I can see my sister tell her first lie, and I can see myself on my first date. I can see past, present, and future all at once. And at this very moment, I can see every mother, every daughter, and every grandmother who ever closed ranks at a funeral for one of their own. In sharp relief I see my great-grandmother and my great-great grandmother and my great-great-great grandmother standing in an identical formation to the one I stand in today.
There’s a dampness on my face but I don’t notice. My sister, though, passes me a tissue. My mother takes my hand. I glimpse immortality as I close my eyes and feel cool hands on my flushed cheeks.
Emma Moore lives in North Carolina. This is her first published work.