My mother appeared at the kitchen table looking like I had never seen her. It was a Sunday morning, newly spring, the birds delirious with life and sun. I heard them spitting high-pitched whistles into the wind. Through the kitchen window behind my mother, they dove for seeds at the feeder, a plastic Tupperware party bowl secured to a post.
“You can’t go to Mass like that,” I told her. I’d been up for hours drawing circles on yesterday’s newspaper. I wanted something more original than “she loves me, she loves me not” for each ink bubble, but that was the only divining tool I could conjure. Love at first sight. Pathetic. Just before dawn, my pen had quit.
“It’s bad, isn’t it, mija?” she said, arms held out at her sides.
“Have you looked in the mirror?”
“I was afraid to,” she said.
There was no pretending. My mother had horns. A substantial set of curved bones. In addition, a pointed tail had worked its way out of the waistband of her skirt. The rayon tent of material—navy blue with an interlocking pattern of turquoise and red diamonds—moved awkwardly against her full waist and hips. Her hands were still lovely, long fingers and filed nails polished dark pink. Her wedding band thinner than my belief in God or in marriage. Her smile seemed the same, close enough. Although something about her teeth signaled trouble. Her cheeks were still dimpled. Eyes still soft spoons of dark syrup. But the horns, the tail, and the hooves—which had replaced her feet, making her four inches taller—were all causes for concern.
“I wouldn’t go today,” I told her. “If I were you.” I saw the congregation in my mind. Her friends lined up in the pews, perfumed and finely dressed. Imagined their wandering minds as Father Rodolpho’s voice slipped, elusive as a snake in water, past their ears. “The church will still be there next week,” I said. “Or whenever.”
My mother tapped her hoof on the tile. It sounded like a cap gun firing.
“That’s fancy,” I told her and pulled an orange from the fruit basket, dug in with my fingernails.
She poured herself coffee, stirring in extra sugar. Her attempts to sit down proved difficult. After rocking forward and back, and from side to side, she stood up. Leaned against the window. The birds at the feeder sprayed seeds. The whirl of their feathers cut air. A messy escape.
“You’ve been up all night?” she said. “Aren’t you tired?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m tired.” I unraveled the orange in my palm from its peel. Ate it slowly. Milked the juice before biting into the pulp. “The horns look like they hurt,” I said. “Do they?”
“No, just heavy.” She let her neck drop forward. The tips of her horns caught a blade of morning light and shone. She tapped them tentatively with her left palm. “Pretty functional design,” she said. “If I were so compelled.”
“I wish you would,” I said. “Where is he?”
“Where do you think?” She removed her shawl. Hair denser than I remembered fuzzed her upper arms and forearms. She took her tail in both hands and examined it.
It was likely my mother’s husband had been drinking with our neighbor, Diego. It was likely my mother believed he was asleep on Diego’s couch. I knew better.
It was not uncommon to wake on a Sunday morning—or any morning, for that matter, during the years I spent in the house growing up, and most recently in the years following my prodigal return—and see my mother’s face swollen, blossoming with bruises. Occasionally, red webbing spread across the whites of one of her eyes.
Enduring my stepfather’s physical nature seemed to be as much a part of being married for my mother as was doing his laundry, sautéing onions, garlic, and liver, strolling with him arm in arm through the neighborhood at dusk, driving when he couldn’t differentiate which set of lines to stay between.
“How long do you think it will last?” she said, as if she’d woken up with a cold sore.
I peeled another orange. Separated it into sections, undid each pulp seam, pushed out the seeds.
“You want my diagnosis?” I said.
I worked in a clinic. Completed intake forms for those who couldn’t speak English, translated during their appointments—the patient’s list of symptoms, the doctor’s questions, diagnosis and prescription. My mother consulted me on medical matters, confident in my answers, as if working near doctors and nurses made me one as well. “Claro,” she’d say when I’d dismantle her logic, a combination of madness and magic which suggested I was perfectly equipped to address her ailments. Despite all the factual evidence, to her I was a medical professional. Of course.
“You woke up a different person,” I told her. What else could I say? Another ailment, another disorder, another bodily betrayal, it was common. A natural part of being human. While the state my mother was in seemed extreme, I knew better than to cause any panic. “It happens all the time,” I reassured her.
It was obvious from her expression that she had hoped for more. But then, how could she argue?
My mother had modeled her life after martyrs. The commitment she had to my stepfather, despite his punishments, was her daily penance, her way to get God’s attention. “What do you know about being married?” she’d said the last time I’d dialed the local police. He’d split her lip. Cuffed her wrists in matching welts.
Interrupting their ritual was not an option. “Déjalo,” she’d say, as if I were her perpetrator. “Déjalo. Déjalo. Déjaloooo.” Her voice expelling me from the room where she sacrificed herself. All my efforts to help, refused. There she would be in her car, following the cruiser to the police station. Waiting at the front desk before they had him out of the backseat. Her pocketbook open for bail before they had his hands free. My stepfather, his hands smaller than mine, so slight his frame. My stepfather, who never raised his voice, who braided my mother’s hair and polished her toes. Who, when he wasn’t bruising or breaking her, kissed her so carefully it made me ache. My stepfather who was—no doubt in my mind—at this very moment in the cab of Diego’s pickup truck, his breath thick with the stink of Diego’s cum.
My mother lifted her nose into the air. Horns tilted back. She reached for her neck, hands supporting the burden. The lid was off the jar of bacon fat. It shone like a spotlight on the stove. Burnt toast littered my plate from the night before. Prickly pear jam smeared the plastic tablecloth—edges scalloped to pretend lace. Tulips pointed erect in the window box near her. Her nose pulsed like a dark grub as she smelled it all.
“If he sees me like this,” she started, then stopped, tapping her hoof on the tile again. “He can’t see me like this.” Her tail slithered in the air. “Mija,” she pleaded. “Fix me.”
A pinwheel of sound twirled through the house. The doorbell. Again, it twirled.
“Does he have his key?” I asked.
“Who knows?” she said, her eyes wild.
If seeing her like this would break the spell of his love, I was happy to open the door and release her. This was the most unfamiliar I’d ever seen my mother. The most alive.
“I’ll take care of it,” I told her.
“Don’t,” she begged. “Please.”
“I’ll just have a look.”
From the front window I could see not my mother’s husband, but Diego’s wife, Gloria, on our cement porch slab. Cradling her hands as if she were expecting communion. I cracked the front door. She smelled of sugar violets.
“Your ma wasn’t at Mass. Everything OK?” She looked me up and down. “Isn’t that what you had on yesterday?” She could see everything through the slip of space I provided. “You sick in there?”
“Everything’s fine, Gloria.”
She stepped closer. Began to lean on the door. Her breath hot in my face, mustard and mint. I could see the gold outline of her two front teeth, where each tooth was met with a thin uneven line of metal. I remembered being eight years old and trying to outline my front teeth with a yellow highlighter. I wanted to look like Gloria or any other woman who was not my mother. Any woman who would not have chosen my stepfather to love her the way that he did.
“Let me see your ma,” Gloria said, her foot edging into the doorway.
“Not right now.” Scraping and groaning echoed from the kitchen. A chair clattered against the tile. Cap gun popping. The sound of something breaking.
“You OK?” she said.
“I’m tired,” I said. “Not a big deal.”
Before I knew it, she had gotten past me. It was a quick, unanticipated move. She leaned her body against the door, pushing it open, then stole past me. Pivoting away just when I reached for her. She did not stop when I shouted her name. Nor did she stop when I shouted for my mother. More than any concern Gloria had for my mother, I’m sure, was the concern Gloria would never admit. The question she would never ask: What did your borracho do with my husband again?
The tile had been scraped badly as if we’d been moving furniture. Gloria called for my mother. I called for my mother. Our voices returned to us. We sent them out again. My mother did not answer.
“This isn’t like her,” Gloria said, studying the kitchen. A chair was overturned. Her coffee cup shattered on the floor. My orange peels on the table, the newspaper I’d covered with countless circles, the black, hard toast. “Her car is there.” Gloria pointed her chin in the general vicinity of the street. Untucked a withered Kleenex from her skirt pocket. “I got those allergies again this year,” she said.
I nodded. Noticed how swollen her eyes were. A pink shade of grief.
“When do you expect your father back?” Gloria asked. I couldn’t remember how many times I’d told her how much I hated when she called him that.
“Around the same time as your husband.”
Gloria called for my mother again. Her voice dozens of hands, searching. “She never misses Mass.”
“As if God is going to save her.”
“You’re stranger than usual today,” Gloria said.
“Wait until you see my mother.” I smiled.
As if on command, my mother appeared at the doorway of the kitchen. A pair of his gym socks on her feet, a sweater tied around her waist, a shawl wrapped around her horns. She’d smeared some blush over the apples of her cheeks, colored her lips. Quite the show of adaption.
Gloria was not buying it. “Hijo de puta,” she snapped. “What the hell did you do to yourself?”
“Sometimes you wake up a different person, I guess,” my mother said. She looked to me for approval.
“It’s true,” I said.
“You’re a different person now?” Gloria said.
My mother unwrapped the shawl, untied the sweater, removed the socks.
“You look like the devil.”
“Gloria,” I said, “don’t be ridiculous.”
My mother had continued, in the few minutes I’d been busy with Gloria, to become less her former self. No new features had appeared, but those she’d woken with had affixed themselves more completely. The tail would not fit in her skirt. The horns appeared more bone-like, mottled chalk, the tips darker. The hooves more cloven, calcified, as if she’d settled into them with all of her weight. Her hips were larger, denser. Her teeth, more misshapen. Her tongue, longer, more pointed. She breathed out of her mouth and must have been using her nose, too, in combination with her tongue, to taste and smell the room.
“It’s worse than I thought,” my mother admitted.
“Let’s make it right,” Gloria said.
“The horns are cemented on,” my mother said. “I tried pulling them off already.” She sighed and licked the air.
Gloria grabbed a knife from the butcher-block holder on the counter. “I’ll help you.”
“Gracias a Díos,” my mother said.
“Easy,” I warned Gloria.
My mother lowered her head.
Gloria tried using the knife point to carve around the base of my mother’s horns. She might as well have been trying to chip away at stone. My mother urged Gloria to dig in. I could see Gloria gritting her teeth with effort. Her head and her hand trembled with excessive force. She was holding her breath. I watched as my mother’s eyes searched the floor. Thought I heard her humming like she did when I colored her hair. Gloria stopped, shook out her hand, spit in the sink.
“If he sees you like this,” Gloria said, referring to my mother’s husband, “you can forget it.”
“Let’s hope,” I said.
“What do you know about anything?” Gloria spat, as if I were responsible for my mother’s transformation. She turned the knife in her hand toward me. “Husbandless, childless, you. What do you know?”
Then she went back to work. But no matter what angle she tried holding the knife, Gloria could not even break my mother’s skin. “Get down,” she told my mother. “Let me try something else.”
Seeing my mother on all fours on the tile of the kitchen floor, with Gloria’s feet on her shoulders, Gloria’s back braced against the counter, using all of her weight to pull on my mother’s horns, made me feel like we had been pretending to be human all this time. Before each pull, Gloria bent her knees, sucked in a deep breath and wrenched upward. I could see the muscles in Gloria’s arms tighten, watched as my mother’s neck stretched forward, her chin pulled up.
“Take it easy, Gloria,” I said.
“I can’t really feel anything,” my mother said. “Give it everything you’ve got.”
“Easy,” I said again.
“Hija,” Gloria asked, “you ever had love?”
I’d had fun, mostly. And when I hadn’t had fun, I pretended. I knew what Gloria meant. Had I ever had love I would hurt myself for? Had I ever had it that badly? Been so infested with feeling that I would wear the mark of a man’s hand as if it were my own skin? Been so infested with feeling that even when my body transformed into the very thing that could save itself, I would do everything I could to stop its own instincts of salvation?
“No. I never have.”
“Then you wouldn’t understand, would you?”
The more my mother’s horns resisted, the more Gloria became frantic. She was sweating and her hands, now slipping, were even more useless than before.
“When mija was a little girl—about seven, right mija?” My mother sat back on her hips and threw her legs out in front of her now that it was clear Gloria needed a break. “And he came to live with us, she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks.” She looked at me, her eyes lit, as if she were telling a joke. “First, I had to kick her out of the bed,” she explained to Gloria, who was fanning herself with the newspaper. “We built a wall, over there, in the living room. Put up a door. Gave her her own place. This is your special place, I told her. Your own room. I told her, you are such a special little girl that you get your own special place. Your own room.” My mother grabbed her tail and tugged. “You remember, mija?”
I watched one lone wren pick at the seed in the feeder.
“She wrote me a note. ‘Not talking until he’s gone.’” My mother laughed. “Stubborn, mija. Do you remember? You thought you were the man of the house.”
I remembered crouching outside her bedroom door. Listening to him hurt her. How could a man so good at hurting be so loved? I never understood.
“You chose him over me,” I said. “Chose him over yourself.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Gloria said. “A woman doesn’t choose between the heart that loves her husband and the heart that loves her child.”
“How many hearts do you have, Gloria?”
“Why do you always have to make things difficult?” she said.
“How many hearts does your husband have?” I said.
“Take this,” my mother interrupted, handing her tail to Gloria. She resumed the position from which she’d just relaxed. Steadied herself on all fours again.
Gloria gripped fist over fist. Wrenched with the force of her entire weight. The tip curled and uncurled, unaffected.
My mother looked over her shoulder. “Try harder.”
Gloria relaxed for a moment, then tried to gain more leverage. The tail seemed to mock her efforts, swishing the air in front of her nose.
I saw myself as a girl tucked outside my mother’s door. Waiting for him to disappear. Waiting to be let back into my place beside her warmth. Just to be near her again without him in the middle, constantly between us. After the pounding came her hushed prayers, his voice a stir of Spanish and English. Nothing worth listening to. It was what would become his routine confession.
“It’s no use,” Gloria acknowledged, rising to her feet. Everything about her looked defeated.
“My hooves,” my mother pleaded, lifting one of her legs. It might as well have been soldered. The shaft rose to her knee.
Gloria reached down and ran her hand along my mother’s leg. She made a fist and knocked against what was no longer skin. I heard how solid.
“The knife,” my mother said, but her voice gave her away. She, too, had given in.
Gloria shook her head. “Guess you had to start talking again at some point, hija, hunh? You and all your ideas of how things should be.”
“Check your husband for how many hearts he has,” I said.
My mother’s lip quivered as if, at any moment, she might cry. Despite this, seeing her with her horns and hooves and tail, watching her render a knife useless, made me realize how strong she’d become. She would not be hurt like she had been before. I knew better.
“You’re not the same person you were last night,” I said, standing over her. “Or any night before that.” I couldn’t tell if she understood this about herself.
My mother inhaled for longer than I thought possible. Her chest expanded, doubling in size. As she exhaled, she rose from the floor. A deep note sounded from her throat and filled the kitchen, filled the emptiness inside of me.
Diego’s truck rumbled up the drive, churning gravel. It was late in the afternoon, nearly evening. A flock of birds descended upon the feeding bowl. A whole day had passed through us.
Gloria dropped the knife in the sink. Withdrew her crumbling Kleenex. Cast her eyes down. One door slammed shut, then another.
Men’s voices, both familiar, approached the house. My mother rose to her full height, far taller than she’d been all day, than I ever remembered her being.