This short story is part of our Global Dystopias project.

August 4

The mothers stand in a circle in the central square and fan themselves with the daily news. Sometimes when a cloud passes, they unfold the ridges in their fans and skim a few paragraphs to check if anything true has been printed since yesterday. They are armed with umbrellas to temper the sun. As seen from the belfry of the cathedral, you’d think it was raining—but it isn’t, it doesn’t.

An umbrella is a shade.

A newspaper is a fan.

A mother is a mother, regardless of the latest information regarding her children.

A mother is a mother, regardless of the latest information regarding her children.

The mothers wear blue jeans and sleeveless shirts, flip-flops, gold necklaces that spell their names or their children’s names or feature the human forms of saints. They’re younger than they look. Not a single one over thirty-six. They have long eyelashes, long hair, short strides, thin waists.

I watch as each of them embraces the others. When they do, their colorful umbrellas shift to create new patterns, fit together like seamless tessellations. By my count from the belfry, there are maybe twenty of them down there. Later I’ll review the footage to record an exact figure.

The meeting is consistent with typical protocol as far as I’ve observed. Each time one of their sons is reported as a missing person at the local precinct, the mothers gather here to embrace, recite prayers, throw rocks, smoke cigarettes, curse under their breath, weep, stare into space.

Typical protocol is that they take turns mothering whoever is at her weakest.

• • •

August 12

According to my records, the year of the disappearances started calmly, regularly, without any sense of alarm, confusion, illusion, or aberration in the normal sequence of time passing. The B47 bus passed every day at 5:00 pm, and Kings and Servants Tavern opened its doors for business at the same hour. When the Sisters of Our Holy Ghost pushed the last Glory Be of beads through their fingers for the night and latched shut the heavy doors of the cathedral, Madame O pulled out her folding table and lawn chair, shuffled her tarot deck, and read the future written inside the palms of passersby by the flickering light of the street lamp that fell on the patch of concrete between the cathedral and the post office. The mail—contrary to perceptions in the capital—arrived on schedule, more or less. Packages sometimes took longer or showed up having been rummaged through before crossing the border, but they arrived is the point. The kids were going to school. When they came home, the mothers asked them what had they learned, and the kids rattled off statistics that made no sense to anyone, which only seemed to serve as evidence that the new generation was learning in ways that were superior to the ways that we had learned, as Laura explained to me during subsequent interviews.

But looking back on it now, it’s easy to find signs that things were not right:

Mimi remembered how her hair had stopped growing that spring, how it had begun to knot at the ends, tiny sequences of dead roots giving up, saying enough already. Juliet saw how the stray cat that lived on the block stopped drinking the yogurt she sometimes smuggled from the shelves of the corner store to leave out for it at night. Like a cat that had trusted her all its life decided suddenly that she was trying to poison it. Gloria had started to have dreams in which the principal actors were giant birds of prey that had replaced the heads of state.

Girls and grandfathers sit around in the central square, play gin rummy, play dominos, play chess, play canasta. Boys play dead.

Women started seeing the faces of their dead husbands when they closed their eyes. Their husbands were gesticulating wildly, angrily; they were trying to say something that frightened them, but the women could never quite make it out in time before their husbands were gone.

These are some of the main examples that come to mind. There are others of course.

Women, female children, and elderly men (whose glaucoma-clouded eyes don’t allow them to focus long enough to sign the waiver to be interviewed on record) now account for the near-total population of the town. Although people have been disappearing for a long time, the new pattern goes something like this:

Girls and grandfathers sit around in the central square, play gin rummy, play dominos, play chess, play canasta.

Boys play dead.

Mothers imagine boys playing dead. Mothers imagine boys dead.

Back and forth like this, ad nauseam. Mothers imagine the bones of boys beginning to calcify in one of the mass graves that everyone knows are waiting to be exhumed on the other side of the mountain range that separates this town from another town from another town that all share the exact same story. And so on across the interior.

• • •

August 17

It started with a boy named Milo. One day he was in the central square playing kickball after school with the sons of the other mothers, and the next day he was gone. They take turns walking his mother Lexus to the laundromat at the corner of Hieroglyph and Eighteenth Street to keep her company even when they don’t have wash to do themselves. Lexus always carries with her a large sack filled with Milo’s clothes, but she doesn’t wash them. She says she doesn’t want to waste soap on washing the clothes of someone who has disappeared, doesn’t want to get up her expectation that he will be coming back. Also, the clothes still have his smell in them.

While Lexus waits for the spin cycle to finish with the clothes of every other confirmed-living member of her family, she holds Milo’s clothes up to her face and inhales the fabric. He was fifteen when he went missing. He is sixteen now, if he is anything other than a lump in the ground.

Lexus breathes heavily into the cotton T-shirt, sits back in the plastic deck chair, folds the shirt again.

The mothers listen to Lexus while she describes inhaling the fabric of Milo’s shirt: musty, musky, alive with a quick smell that keeps mutating and overpowers all her other senses, makes the back of her throat taste of salt.

• • •

August 25

The next boy was Daniel. He walked to the corner store for a soda and never came home. Since then his mother Sofia finds dead boys in her house at night, but none of them are Daniel. The mothers take turns keeping watch with her to ward off unfamiliar ghosts.

The buildings sway for a moment, just long enough to make one wonder, then they groan and settle back in place.

The last time it happened, Sofia found a dead boy slumped in the corner of the bath. His neck was broken. A school of minnows swam around the curves in his hipbones and heels. She put her hand into the water to touch his wrist and watched the minnows dodge her fingers.

The mothers peered into the doorway of the bathroom.

What is it? they asked.

Sofia looked from them to the tub again, and it seemed for a moment that she saw there what they saw: nothing.

He was here, she said. In the water.

But the mothers showed her how there was also no water. The shallow tub was dry and its dull porcelain gleamed. No water, no minnows, no boy.

It’s going to be like this for a while, they reminded her. The doctors warned us.

The mothers approached the tub, tried to embrace her, but Sofia went outside to smoke.

When she came back into the house, the other mothers were asleep on the sofa with their shoes still on their feet. Sofia locked the back door and walked into the bathroom. She wiped her eyes and washed her face. When her face was sunken into the bowl of the sink, the splashing started up again, just as before.

Sofia approached the tub and pushed her fingers through his long hair. It’s when her fingers caught a snag (the minnows scurried away) that she saw how his hair was very fine and light, completely unlike her son’s, which was dark and wavy and took hours with a brush to work through its most uncooperative parts. She took off her clothes and climbed into the shallow tub. Displaced, the water sloshed over the edges onto the floor for a second, and then: nothing. She fell asleep like that, her chin in the crook of the boy’s neck, pushing her fingers through his hair—the pretty, docile, nothing hair that wasn’t her son’s.

When she woke up to the mothers’ knocking hours later, there was no water, no boy. Naked in an empty tub, she stood up and made her way toward the door.

The mothers opened their arms to receive her, wrapped her in a beach towel, and led her to the living room, where they kept watch with her for the rest of the night.

When the mothers take care of Sofia, they keep the TV on in the background, just in case they get drowsy, just in case they run out of things to say. The TV offers a different kind of comfort because it is always on, a constant, even on the nights when they cannot be with her.

These places still exist on the map, but it would be better to pretend otherwise. Besides, maps lie.

Sofia’s voice grows loud late at night. It’s not always clear whether she’s talking to the mothers or the TV when she cries out.

To this, the mothers say, Hush, knead the skin around her shoulders into their palms, and wrap the beach towel tighter around her bare arms.

When I was a girl, Sofia explained to me later, my father worked the night shift driving a taxi. It was his second job; he was backup for the regular drivers. They only called him when they needed him. In the morning at breakfast, I would ask my mother if my father had left the house to drive the taxi during the night. If she said yes, I would always confirm that I had already registered this fact somewhere inside my senses; I would always remember the house feeling a little emptier while I slept. That’s what it feels like, waking up without the ghost of someone else’s boy, even though he is not mine, and only shares very basic physical characteristics with my boy.

End of tape.

• • •

September 1

In the capital there are minor earthquakes every day. No big deal. The only reason you can feel them at all is because of the height of the towers. The buildings sway for a moment, just long enough to make one wonder, then they groan and settle back in place. Usually nothing happens. Go out onto your private balcony. Take some deep breaths. Admire the formations of the distant mountains. Better not to think about the fact that entire towers have collapsed this way—building permits don’t always take into account plate tectonics. It can be a logistical nightmare to comply with all the standards, the red tape.

At night, the views from the private balconies are phenomenal. The mountains glimmer in the distance as thousands of stray lights switch on after sunset. You might imagine every light is a woman who came to the city alone. That’s pretty much an exact ratio. Behind each faraway light is an internal alien settlement. Eighty percent of breadwinners in internal alien households are single mothers—disenfranchised young women who, nevertheless, possess clear knowledge of how to illegally rig electrical wires to reach neighborhoods that the city does not service.

Around the same time that malls started going up, all the colonial architecture was ripped from its foundation in favor of the towers, which have come to be the preferred residential arrangements in a city where one is careful about who one meets. The gym and pool and children’s birthday party space is all contained right here within the central courtyard. It’s extremely convenient.

Here are the areas where it’s permitted to hang up balloons and streamers.

Here is the hookup for the stereo and karaoke machine.

If you choose to sing songs with profane lyrics, your neighbors are liable to complain to management and hold you accountable. In the tower where I’ve been staying for the past few weeks while I compile notes, the management considers the development of a respectful community to be paramount.

The days when they pause to breathe deeply, they feel most lost.

Make sure that you request the central courtyard for your private event at least two weeks prior to the date.

Pick up after your pets.

Swim at your own risk.

No running, no diving, no horseplay.

No shirt, no shoes, no service.

Now that you have all these rules to keep in mind, can you even remember the names of any villages in the interior? Could you locate them on a map? As for the names of the temporary settlements in the surrounding mountains, it’s more common to refer to these areas by their city-assigned numbers. Avoid Three, Ten, Thirteen, and Fifteen, for example, at all costs.

• • •

September 9

The village of the mothers is different from the places where they were born and where their parents were buried, places whose names have lain dormant, curled up in the roofs of their mouths for so long they’re almost gone. These places still exist on the map, but it would be better to pretend otherwise. Besides, maps lie. The black dots that locate the site and relative density of towns, for example, appear identical before and after massacres. The mothers have started to remove the names of their towns from their vocabularies, referring to them in vague ways if they refer to them at all.

Instead, they remember them through tastes and, sometimes, old smells on the air that disorient and confuse: salt mixed with dirt, fried meat with pollen.

Last week Mimi walked into town from halfway up a mountain with a fistful of wildflowers, and a crazed look in her eyes.

Come here, hurry up! she yelled to the mothers, pushing the flowers into their faces.

How would you like to see this place covered in flowers?

They inhaled, but noticed nothing, nothing outside of the realm of every other wildflower they’ve smelled in their lives.

It’s gone, Mimi agreed. It’s all used up. But when I was walking, I passed some horses—

She broke off, smiled, nursed the half-dead bouquet in her arms like a bride.

But she didn’t have to say anything else. Even if their old homes have nothing to do with wildflowers, with horses. It’s an easy correlation, all the mothers agree: the days when they pause to breathe deeply, they feel most lost.

• • •

September 14

Most days here are the same. I wake up early and start knocking on doors. I pull my recording device from my backpack and the mothers speak into it, their eyes heavy on the little red light which proves the watery sounds of their voices are being converted into a hard record. Their stories start like this:

Someone gave my husband a pouch of seeds.

Mallorca was the one speaking, but the other mothers nodded in collective agreement. The ruin of a family starts slowly. Only later do the principal actors trace it back to the roots that quietly spelled trouble beneath the soil.

Our land was destroyed, Mallorca continued. We spent years trying with tubers and barleys and lettuces. Nothing grew. I had five children who lived on broth and sometimes rice and almost no meat. My husband came home one day after several meetings with a stern look on his face. He asked me, How would you like to see this place covered in flowers? There was nothing I wanted less, but I saw he had already made up his mind. He whispered to me the selling prices as they were told to him, and I whispered these numbers back to him to be sure I had heard him right. My husband pushed the pouch into my hand. I was the one who planted the first seeds. I planted them with resolve. I buried them and I thought of my mother, of how when we put her in the ground I expected my family would stay on the same land where she was. My family has been running for half a century or more. Running is the trait that I share with all of my traceable ancestors. This is why when the seeds came to my husband they seemed the answer to a prayer.

Mallorca’s face slowed and fell. She pushed her forehead into the shoulder of another mother, Eli, who turned to me for half a second and finished the memory as if by rote, because it is also her story:

Some prayer.

She shakes her head, but there is no record of this gesture.

End of tape.

We call each other sweetie, baby, mama, skinny, love, little thing, my dear, honey, artichoke, plum.

I used to be a believer, is a sentence I have documented many times in my research. Faith dissolves at different moments for different informants. One popular example is the moment when the youngest children, the ones just learning how to run, start dropping dead in the fields.

Look up. Overhead, low-flying planes dust crops with a toxin specially formulated to decimate growth.

Aside from poisoning plants, animals, and small children, the substance has also been correlated with reports of rashes, headaches, dizziness, fainting spells, dry eyes, dry mouth, shortness of breath, blood clots, irritable bowel syndrome, infections of the liver, infections of the blood stream, kidney failure, heart failure, strokes, boils on the skin, blurred vision.

On this point, all informants agree: bury your dead fast enough to pick up and keep moving.

• • •

September 23

In the home of Sandra, the mothers gather weekly to voice different hypothetical scenarios. Some get listed aloud, and some get listed without words inside the quiet of their bodies. Scenarios include: their boys found steady jobs in the next province and have been working so hard that they haven’t had the chance to write home. Or, their boys all fell in love and eloped. Or, their boys have gone to look for their fathers. Or, their boys are being held hostage somewhere.

The possibility that the boys lie quiet in one of the stretches of land where the mothers observe haggard scavenger birds making excruciatingly slow circles in the sky is one example of a scenario that is not voiced aloud.

Juliet’s boy said to her before he left: I found a job in the city. I’ll be gone for a few months, but not forever. I’ll send home as much help as I can.

But that was three months ago. He’s never called or written, never sent a dime. Juliet checks the mail every day to be sure.

When Joel went missing, the mothers squeezed Gloria’s hands in theirs. Then, they locked themselves in their bedrooms to cry until they could not breathe.

Sometimes the mothers used to say they wished their husbands would leave for good, but now that they are gone, it is different.

They do not talk about the fact that is clear to everyone, that Joel did not leave town to find work. The complications when he was born caused him to learn to speak later than the other boys, so that even at seventeen he talks slowly, loudly. He cannot perform simple math functions. He does not understand the value of money.

Instead, hypothetical scenarios Fifty-seven, Fifty-eight, and Fifty-nine are added to the running list:

The boys are lost in the mountains. The boys fell ill while traveling and are being hospitalized in small towns not unlike this one. The boys crossed paths with a rebel camp in the woods, where they are being temporarily held purely for administrative purposes.

• • •

September 30

For the benefit of my comprehension, the mothers elaborate on the character of their relationships:

We call each other sweetie, baby, mama, skinny, love, little thing, my dear, honey, artichoke, plum.

We make each other sweet tea, sweet water, coffee, juice, lemonade.

We go to the corner to fetch one another’s cigarettes, sodas, liquors, chocolates.

We fold each other’s sheets, prepare each other’s dinners, discipline each other’s daughters, sing each other’s lullabies.

Our care for each other is intuitive, obvious as breast milk.

End of tape.

• • •

October 3

They miss their mothers.

Their mothers would know what to do. But the mothers’ mothers were buried in the towns they fled. Or their mothers didn’t support their decisions to have the babies of the men who had become their husbands, and they had just lost touch. Or they suspected their mothers were dead but because they had never seen the bodies with their own eyes, they didn’t discuss this, not even with their own children. Or their mothers had been gathered up with all their fathers in fields as they sat blindfolded on the steps of a nearby cathedral, and the last thing they remember was pushing the flats of their palms into their ears.

Their mothers had smelled the same as always the last time they’d embraced them: like bar soap, day-old bread, lavender, kitchen grease. Their eyes sting on days when they turn a corner too fast and are met with the yeast or soap smells that remind them of their mothers.

Mallorca remembers how her mom used to drag the sign of the cross into her forehead whenever she left the house. She must have used the corner of her fingernail because sometimes it had left a mark in her powdered face. If Mallorca complained, her mother had pressed her nail in harder.

Laura’s mom had patched up the holes in her clothes. She’d never asked her mother to do this. She would put on the same pair of jeans in the morning that she took off the night before, and notice the wind didn’t pass through the knees anymore.

Queenie’s had sung in the shower. She’d had a gravelly deep voice like the bottom of a river. When Queenie tries to sing her mom’s songs, the words sound too thin in her mouth.

Juliet still shares a bed with her mom at night. Her mother talks in her sleep, old stories of lost lands that come out mixed with snores so loud that Juliet barely sleeps. Juliet has become beautiful with an enviable set of permanent dark circles around her eyes at all times that grow with each night she lies awake listening to her mother.

Mimi explained, When we greet Juliet in line at the grocery, we look away at piled fruits and hanging meats to avoid her eyes.

They miss their husbands.

They miss how their husbands grabbed their waists and pulled them closer to them in their beds at night. Their husbands, with their dirty fingernails and flat feet, with their distrust of saints and superstitions, with their chests and arms.

Starvation is what eventually quiets the animals.

The way they yelled at the radio.

The way they tore apart the house looking for something that was in the same place as always.

The way they changed their voices when they talked to animals.

Their husbands left them with children, with bruises on their bodies, with the smells of their shaving lotions in the bathroom, with rings on their fingers or in their ears.

Sometimes the mothers used to say they wished their husbands would leave for good, but now that they are gone, it is different.

Their husbands left them for younger women, or they were kidnapped, or they stepped on explosives, or they starved to death in the hills, or they were gunned down at home while everyone slept, or they were in the city trying to save enough to send for them, or they were already so long in the ground it was pointless to try to remember the sounds of their voices.

Sometimes they think about the days when their husbands were still strangers. When a girlfriend had said how she’d seen him staring this way, how they’d rolled their eyes and laughed. How they thought at first, No way, too short. Or, Too skinny. Or, Talks too much, my God, he thinks he knows everything. How the first time their husbands spoke to them—in the park, or in the church, or in the field—and the words came out rushed because of a trembling mouth.

Sometimes they imagine what might have happened if they hadn’t smiled, or turned around, or listened to the rest of what the men who would become their husbands had wanted to say to them.

They miss their boys.

At night is the worst. From inside their beds and bodies, they speak to the ceiling with voices that rise and fall with the pitch of wounded animals left for dead in the fields. Starvation is what eventually quiets the animals.

The mothers stay ravenous.

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