Fiction
Fiction

The City Of My Mother's Girlhood

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint


Take me home to the city of my mother’s girlhood, to the tree-lined streets, the trees still young and slender, their leaves long and thin like my mother’s hands.  Take me to the city where you can tell a woman’s occupation by the color of her skirt: red for nurse, green for schoolteacher, blue for secretary. The city where only neighbor’s dogs are to be wared of, where squatters live on the other side of the railroad, where the electric lights are white and clean, and the telephone lines stand straight up, pulled tautly over our heads. 

 

There is no happiness outside of that city, outside of its stone walls, its households of good name, its jasmines and guard dogs and wrought-iron fences; there is only the boxcars collapsing over the railroad, only the streetlamps gasping and the street dogs howling, only the little girl at the intersection with a baby on her hip, hunting stray cats to eat.

 

                                                  ***

 

The women are fair in city. Their skin milky-white and smooth, like the moon before the scientists reported craters. The women bear their children without pain. The babies slip out like fish, and all the nurses have to do is catch them in their red skirts. My mother was one of those babies. She leapt into the nurse’s skirt, conical head first, with the umbilical cord around her neck and the afterbirth trailing behind.

 

My mother was pale blue, the color of mollusks’ skin underneath their shells, an asphyxiated baby-fish swaddled in a red skirt.

 

There was a place in the hospital where they took the babies with blue skin. The babies in this part of the hospital were kept under glass, like antiques at the pawn shop, my grandmother’s emeralds and sapphires glinting behind the Do Not Touch sign. Families of good name, with their shame displayed in glass cases. 

 

My mother said she would have died if the nurse had taken her to that glassy place in the hospital. Like upside-down jars, my mother said, and I imagined little bodies trapped inside like insects, crawling in circles around the rims of the jars, fluttering their poor little wings. When the babies died, my mother said, they just turned the jars right side up, screwed on lids, and put them away in cupboards. There were cupboards full of dead babies in jars. But my mother did not end up on a shelf. As soon as she landed in the nurse’s skirt, her blue face turned as red as the fabric that caught her, and she began to cry. 

 

                                                  ***

 

The city has banned mopeds and motorcycles, or bikes, as I've heard the squatter kids say, because the mayor's daughter was shot by a man on a motorcycle last month. It was all in the newspapers:

 

The Mayor’s daughter was on a shopping trip with her mother, the Mayor’s ex-wife. They were perusing the textiles in the city’s night market, the imported silks and cottons, dyed and waxed, finished with silver buttons, pearl buttons, shell buttons luminous in the market’s lantern light. It was 9:30 in the evening, and the alley was crowded with bicyclists and lovers and women selling fruit on trays poised over their heads. From this crowd, a motorcycle emerged, and three shots were fired into the textiles tent. The motorcyclist was a helmeted man in a black leather jacket. He ran over a handful of shoppers, knocked down the discount racks that were out on the curb, and turned left onto Market Street.

 

The Mayor’s daughter did not die. Miraculously, the newspapers said, she was saved. The bullets bypassed her vital organs and her tender, good heart. 

 

I don’t think it is a miracle that the Mayor’s daughter survived. I think maybe it is difficult to shoot at someone from a fast-moving vehicle. Sometimes when I am riding my bicycle, I try to let go of the handlebars, one hand at a time, and I can’t do it for more than a few seconds. Maybe it is different on a motorcycle. Maybe you don’t need two hands to fire a gun. But I would think you’d need two hands to hold it steady.

 

The Mayor’s daughter did not die, but a bystander did. A man was run over by the motorcycle.

 

                                                  ***

 

In the city the electricity goes on and off in all the quarters. My mother said it is because the city has grown over-large and is falling apart. The squatters have crossed over to our side of the railroad. The trees along the streets have been cut down, and in their place, neon signs and billboards have been planted. The telephone lines crisscross the sky, along with laundry lines and electricity lines drooping low. Satellite dishes are crammed on the roofs of apartment buildings, and thumb-sucking children are crammed on the balconies. The neighbors' dogs have run away and formed wild packs, unvaccinated, unneutered, with sharp teeth and red eyes. 

 

My mother said it was a mistake for us to come back. 

 

For you to come back, I said. This is my first time here.

 

I just wanted to come home, my mother said.

 

In the city of my mother’s girlhood, she lived in a white house with wide balconies, fruit-bearing trees, and jasmines growing over the wrought-iron fence. My grandmother’s jasmines. The whole house smelled of them. When my grandmother was alive, the house was in order. The white curtains billowed in the wind, the furniture was dusted, the floors were swept, the wind chimes sang. My mother slept in the attic, where she would lie in bed listening to the men talk on the balcony below. In the evenings, the men would sip tea or stronger drinks, and their low voices would float into my mother’s attic, their mumbling, bearded voices stroking her hair.

 

                                                  ***

 

In my mother’s girlhood, she had dreamed of the future. But the future then wasn’t like the future now. It lied down flat on the wet sand, its smooth back gleaming in the pale light of dawn. A single line drawn from one end to the other, my mother said. 

 

I thought of the horizon. I thought of the time in middle school when they took us to the museum downcity and we got to watch a planetarium show. When the lights dimmed, the bottom of the dome screen began to glow faintly and you could see the outline of houses, their little chimneys, the trees, telephone lines. It all looked like stenciled cut-outs, but I felt a little sad. I had never seen the sky like that before.

 

My mother still dreamed of the future now, but she said it wasn’t the same. I thought of the stenciled town in the planetarium and imagined little cut-out people living there, making fires in the fireplace, calling friends on the telephone, going about their lives. Did they know they were toeing the horizon? Did they know they lived on a single line, drawn from one end to the other?

 

                                                  ***

 

My boyfriend and I broke up. It happened a few weeks before I got the news about the motorcycle accident.

 

The thought of hurting you, he had said, is one of the worst things to me.

 

One of the worst things.

 

I looked up at the wood-paneled ceiling in the attic and thought of what the other worst things might be. How many worst things could there be? Wasn’t worst a superlative? Couldn’t there only be one thing?

 

My mother snored loudly from her bed on the other side of the attic. That was pretty bad, but was it the worst?

 

I thought of the things my boyfriend didn’t like. Waking up in the morning.  Disappointment. People giving him a hard time when he’s trying to make a U-turn in the middle of the street. And among all that, the thought of hurting me.

 

The thought, he had said, as if it were only a hypothetical possibility, though already I was crying. We were sitting in his living room, on the same couch where we first made out, where we once had sex, where he passed out drunk in my lap one night after a party and I just sat there and stroked his hair.

 

How long were you together? my mother had asked when I telephoned her.

 

Twenty-one months? I said. It made me think of baby clothes, counting by months, but I could not bring myself to say nearly two years. 

 

It takes half the time to get over it, my mother said. It’s taking me lifetimes with your father.

 

A few weeks later it was my mother who called me.

 

He’s dead, she said.  It’s in all the papers.

 

                                                  ***

 

My father was a castaway. In those days, when the city was tree-lined and stone walled, the city of my mother’s girlhood was a place of refuge. Every Thursday, moon-faced women in the white skirts of widows would cross the railroad to give alms to the squatters on the other side. They gave porridge to the hungry, blankets to the cold, condoms to all, and vaccinations to the naked hordes of children who had to be caught one by one like wild pigs and held down for the needles. 

 

My father was not among these squatter children. His belly did not bulge with parasites. His bottom did not sting from so many shots. My father was already a young man when they found him on the beach. He lied flat on his stomach, half-buried in the wet sand, his skin gleaming like rubber in the morning light.

 

They brought him to my grandparents’ house because my grandfather was a doctor of good name. They did not bring him to the hospital, my mother said, because they could not find an ID card on him, and no money either. He was not the first man to wash up like this, but the first who was still alive. There was a place in the hospital where they took people like my father, people without a history. Dead or alive, they were stuffed into drawers, with the toe tags left blank, hanging limply from the limp bodies.

 

My mother played nurse. She tied a red apron over her schoolgirl’s green skirt and brought my father hot tea twice a day. It was the blue skin, my mother said, that touched her. She came home from school one day and found him lying on the sofa in the living room, wrapped up in a red blanket. His face was the color of mollusks’ skin underneath their shells, but darker around the lips. My mother touched two fingers to those blue lips and they felt cold.  

 

When my father got better, the two of them became friends. In the mornings, they walked to school together under the young, slender trees, and in the evenings, they went for walks under the white, clean electric lights. Sometimes, they would sneak out in the middle of the night, and walk through the city alone, just the two of them. There was no curfew then, no police sirens sounding through the streets at midnight and two and four; only the moon, resplendent, craterless, floating over the taunt telephone lines. You know the rest of the story, my mother said.

 

                                                  ***

 

Before we came to back to the city, my grandfather lived alone in the once-white house with wide balconies. The jasmines died long ago, and the fruit bearing trees were overgrown, overripe, their fleshy remains rotting on the garden floor, half-eaten by army ants and rats and the squatter children on their gleaning rounds. Every Thursday now the squatters gathered by the railroad and made their rounds through the city’s quarters, asking porridge for the hungry, blankets for the cold, condoms for all, and vaccinations for the naked hordes of children. But though the children now obediently presented their bottoms for the needles, there were no widow women in white skirts to administer the shots. The hospital held only empty beds and empty vials. The cupboards lined with jars of babies, the drawers full of blank-tag people, all for nothing.

 

My grandfather did not know who I was. Sometimes he thought I was my mother, and he would ask me how my school day went, ask me to recite the periodic table.  I would do it, just to humor him, listing off whatever elements I could remember from high school chemistry: Helium, Borium, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, making them up as I went, Glycomium, Pneumonium, Estrogen. He never noticed. Other times my grandfather thought I was my grandmother. Once I walked into his study, and he started to weep.

 

Why did you come back? he said.

 

I thought he meant why I came back to the city.

 

I don’t know, I said. Because my father died? Because my boyfriend broke up with me?     

 

Why have you come back to haunt me? my grandfather said. He was sobbing now, his head on the desk, his shoulders heaving up and down.

 

When the Mayor’s daughter was shot by the man on the motorcycle, the Mayor’s office called my grandfather’s house.

 

Where is your son? they said. My father was the best surgeon in the city, but he was not at the hospital on the night of the shooting. This was not unusual because there were hardly any patients at the hospital anymore and the doctors had to go knocking door to door to treat anyone who was actually sick.   

 

He went to the market, my grandfather said.

 

When they found my father, it was too late. He had lost too much blood, his face drained of color, pale blue like the day they found him on the beach. The future was not what it used to be.

 

                                                  ***

 

My boyfriend said something had changed inside of him.

 

What do you mean? I said. I pictured gears shifting inside of his chest. The turning of a key. Something clicking, falling into place.

 

My boyfriend looked at his hands, said something.

 

No, I said. I did not believe him.

 

I curled deeper into the couch, deeper into my mollusk shell.

 

No, I said again. 

 

We were going to raise goats together and give them pretentious names: Sheila, our goat; Alfonso, our goat; Ernestine, our very dear goat. There was a little white church on a hill. I had a postcard of it taped over the mantel in his living room.

 

Please, I said to my boyfriend. Please take me home.

 

                                                  ***

 

You know the rest of the story, my mother had said, but the truth is, I don’t. I don’t know what went first: the slender trees or the tautness of the telephone lines. I don’t know which streetlamp sputtered out first, which neighbor’s dog was the first to have its picture pasted up and down the block: MISSING, and under that: REWARD.  I don’t even know if the jasmines died first or if my grandmother did.

 

All I know is that early one morning, my grandmother got out of bed, woke up the maids, and sent them to the market with a shopping list. She drew the white curtains, opened the windows, and changed the water in the flower vases. Then she walked out the door, out the wrought-iron fence, downcity to the pawn shop. She took the money straight to my mother. Smelling of jasmines, my mother said, even on that very last day in the city, even on that sunny summer morning, when there was not a cloud in the sky to cast shadows, the night flowers clung to my grandmother.

 

My mother was kneeling before the toilet in the small hostel room.

 

You should go immediately, my grandmother said.

 

My mother inhaled the jasmines and felt sick.

 

Later that day, my mother left the city and my grandmother died. How? I wanted to know.  My mother said in the city of her girlhood, there was a place where families of good name kept their secrets, a dark, damp room with the windows shut and the shutters barred. The air was stagnant in that room, sticky. The shame that hung there never dried and the salt-smell of blood, vomit, semen, all bodily fluids, clung on year after year. And the years marched around the perimeter of that room, like army ants, each year a black dot following another black dot, a thick black line swarming over the discolored walls.           

 

I thought of the dead babies in cupboards. Formaldehyde wafting through the long corridors of the hospitals. Doctors of good name, with their pretty wives and daughters.  

 

I did not ask my mother again.

 

                                                  ***

 

Throughout the city there are billboards listing all the things that are banned, illegal, to be turned in, or else confiscated. Mopeds, motorcycles, helmets, black leather jackets. Novels, foreign films, conceptual art, short-transmission radios, watches that tick, waterguns, BBguns, plastic toy guns, syringes, sunglasses, long hair.

 

I think the Mayor must have either the best sense of humor in the world or no sense of humor at all. Maybe he started out one way but ended up the other. I think maybe it gets difficult when no one else is in on the joke, when you have to lock yourself up in the mayoral suite, dismiss the guards, and shut all the windows, just to enjoy a good laugh. Maybe it gets hard not to take yourself seriously when everybody else does.

 

I wonder where they took all of it, though, not only the confiscated things, but the people who didn’t comply. Maybe they were taken to the mayoral house, where they were greeted with fringed squawkers and confetti, the Mayor jumping up from behind a genuine leather couch, yelling “SURPRISE!” Maybe all the missing people just sat around on fancy upholstery, laughing and sipping champagne, thinking of new, even more ridiculous things to ban.

 

 

But it’s more likely they’re all dead now. From my spot on the balcony, I saw a boy beat up in the street last week. He was probably walking home from school, either the high school in the plaza or the trade schools near the outskirts where they bussed the students. They came at him with scissors. Two of the uniformed men held him down, kneeling on the gravel, while a third man took fistfuls of the boy’s long, curly hair, and hacked away. There was blood everywhere. I knew scalp wounds bled profusely, and even a minor cut could look bad, but they were really butchering this boy.

 

I had seen what the squatters gathered on their gleaning rounds: the black birds that fell from electricity lines, the street dogs with their legs chewed off in fights, left to die, the road kills that resembled large cats or small children.

 

I worried that the squatters would come for this boy.

 

 

                                                  ***

 

It was the last night of summer for me and my boyfriend. Our last swim in the pond under a full moon. We knew the moon would be full again. It would wax and wane, inspire poetry, welcome space shuttles, pull at the sea. But it wouldn’t be like it was that last night, that last swim, the pond water so warm around our bodies, and the bullfrogs croaking at the shore.

 

My boyfriend kissed my ear. The dark was falling around us, and we tried to catch it in our hands. Splashed the dark at each other. There were crickets calling to us, and all our lives that could have been. I knew we had come to the end. And it wasn’t drowning in the pond that night, but having to leave the pond. It was the first shiver, the first goosebumps that appeared. It was having to heave our bodies up the ladder to the dock, the cool night air hardening my nipples, the second shiver, my damp shirt sticking to my back.

 

We rode back on our bicycles. My hair still wet, the flashlights taped on the handlebars. We followed the white lines on the street before us, the taillights of a departing car, small and red in the wide darkness. I lifted my right hand, felt the wind sift through my fingers. I lifted my left hand. Look! I wanted to call out to my boyfriend. I stretched out both arms in the dark. Look, I whispered, but I couldn’t hold it for more than a few seconds. 

 

                                                  ***

 

My mother said I was conceived in the garden, underneath the fruit-bearing trees, in the space between the jasmines and the wrought-iron fence. The ground was softest there, she said, always black and slightly damp. They couldn’t bring themselves to enter the house, to climb the winding stairs that led to the attic of my mother’s girlhood. Inside the white walls of my grandparent’s house, my mother and my father were only children, two baby-fish with blue faces learning how to breathe.

 

The money, my mother said, was for the procedure. In the city of my mother’s girlhood there were widow women in white skirts who escorted girls to the other side of the railroad. These girls would return a few hours later, their faces wilted, their footsteps heavy, their eyelids heavier still. My mother was not one of these girls.  She did not clutch the strong hands of the white skirted widows, she did not muddy the hem of her green skirt crossing the railroad. She took the money that my grandmother brought, went straight to the train station and purchased a one-way ticket out of the city. 

 

                                                  ***

 

When it was over, the uniformed men let go of the boy with a shove, and he crumpled in the street. Like a sheet falling off the laundry line. Tuffs of dark hair hovered around his body, some of it drifting away in the wind. Blood was pooling on the asphalt, running in rivulets down to the gutter.

 

From my spot on the balcony, I whispered to the boy: Stay down. Don’t get up.

 

The air was stagnant that evening, sticky. I could hear the rustling of leaves in the garden below. The rats were scrambling for the fallen fruit. 

 

Don’t get up, don’t get up, I said over and over in my head, as if the force of those words could keep him down. But the boy did get up, of course. They shot him in the head, point-blank. There was no miracle then. The sound of the gunshot jolted me off my seat, and I remembered what happened to bystanders in this city. I went inside the house and shut the doors to the balcony.

 

I pulled the white curtains closed so I wouldn’t have to see if the squatters came to take him away. It was Thursday, when they made their rounds.

 

                                                  ***

 

Later that night, I saw him again. He was my father and my ex-boyfriend and the dead boy all in one person. But mostly, he was my father. We went for a walk around the city, through the clean streets lined with young trees, and the electric lights bright and clean. We listened for the crickets and the bullfrogs croaking by the pond. Though it was night, the sky glowed faintly on the horizon, and I marveled at the flatness of it all.

 

My father said something.

 

I took his hand.

 

There were bits of dark hair floating around us, turning into black birds as they flew into the sky, landing on the telephone lines. Somewhere there was the outline of a chimney.

 

We walked on a single line drawn from one end of the world to the other.

 

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The City of My Mother's Girlhood is the first-place winner in our Literarian/Summer Literary Seminars contest for 2012.  

 

Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint graduated from Brown University in 2011 with a B.A. in Literary Arts and International Relations. Her short stories have appeared in Caketrain, The Kenyon Review Online, The Bicycle Review, Adj Noun Magazine, and various Brown-RISD literary journals. She spent April 2012 as an artist-in-residence at Hedgebook on Whidbey Island, Washington.

 

This story was published in Issue #9 of The Literarian