An excerpt from The Long Fire
by Meghan Tifft
We were born into punishment, my brother and I, our mere existence implicating us. My mother had given it a kind of religious ceremony in our lives, lifted it to a creative and mystifying act that passed through her from somewhere else—never in scale with the original misdeed and never predictable, but always swift and decisive and nonnegotiable. As punishment my mother would leave my brother and me stranded in drugstores and Laundromats for two or three hours at a time, children of nine and six, just young enough to feel the agony of her abandonment. When we were older she would tiptoe into our rooms to read our most private confessions in our journals, and then write sneering notes back to us in the margins. Don’t be a moron, she wrote once after I had made an outraged complaint about a boy in my class. You’re obviously in love with him. I was terrified when I saw this, afraid that my mother would say something to the other mothers, or tease me in front of my brother. But she preferred silent acts of torture—fixing us a meal full of our most despised foods and making us eat it, leaving all our laundry unwashed so we had to fish dirty underwear and socks from the hamper to get dressed for school. By high school we had taught ourselves to be watchful of these tricks; we learned to use the washing machine and plucked up the courage to refuse her dinner, so she simply humiliated us by walking up onto the school bus in the afternoon, draped in the same ragged seafoam-green robe she had been wearing that morning, and pulling us off in front of all of our classmates—never explaining what we had done but leaving that to us to figure out, in our bedrooms later, where we sat nursing our wounds and humiliations, vowing to get her back someday.
What all of my mother’s punishments had in common was the element of surprise, that sharp stab of clarity, that moment of realization diminishing us, prostrating us before the great mystery of her knowledge. What had we done this time? How did she know? Over the years, her tactics had made us churlish, independent, full of defensive mockery and distrust. But while we thought we were tough, grown to be survivors in her cruel world, I later looked back and realized that at the bottom of all that bluster we had submitted ourselves to my mother’s earliest vision of us—and in that vision she was perhaps subscribing to her family’s—that we were weak and culpable, her unhappy rejects, dirty little gaje, deserving of what we got.
It was her earliest punishment that had first annihilated us before we could even save ourselves. When we were young, too young to be embarrassed or threatened out of our utter devotion to her—when her anger only made us cling harder in love and fear—my mother had a special way of punishing us. She took us to the beach.
At the beach, while we played in the waves, she looked down on us from a rusting deck chair and wept. We always knew if she took us there that we had done something bad, and since we didn’t know what it was, the day often unfolded around the mystery of what deviant act we had committed to make her willing to sacrifice us to the worst peril she could imagine. My mother couldn’t swim, and we vaguely understood that we were here because of her fear of drowning, because she could not imagine us going into that water and coming out alive.
At the age of six, I was terrified of the beach: the loose grit in the bottom of the car from the last day trip we had taken, the wet billowing air on my bare shoulders, the brackish gray sand dented and churned by thousands of feet, the malicious little bits of shell that stabbed me when we walked to our spot, the rubbery clumps of cloudy green seaweed strewn everywhere, and worst of all, the appearance of that great glittering ocean surging up in heavy powerful waves, which was there, I knew, to search out the shame and guilt I couldn’t find inside myself and then swallow me under it forever.
Still smoking the cigarette she had lit in the car, my mother would lead us to a spot just behind the soggy line of the tide and set down the cooler and straw shoulder bag she was carrying, and then she would command us to arrange our towels. She stood above us dropping ash into the sand while we followed her instructions with the grim solemnity of those preparing their executions. As she was setting up her chair she would give the word for us to go, and still we would linger, half afraid to do what she said, feeling our will and substance dissolving already, until she turned around and gave us a look that made us run.
And surprisingly, once we got to the water’s edge we felt better, and with our courage plucked up we played fiercely and bravely, making ourselves forget about her, digging up sand crabs with our buckets and knocking our chests into the crashing surf to see who could stay up. Sometimes it went on for hours and hours, us playing resolutely in her view while she sat smoking and weeping above us.
I remember that feeling of vital relief sweeping through me like a gale when finally I looked up the beach and saw that my mother was done with her weeping, that she had pulled one of those thickly furled books out of her bag, the ones with roses and windswept men and women on the covers, and leaned back with it propped against her chest. That was the sign. When her eyes left our bodies, held us no longer to the shoreline, we knew she was now too tired to push us back from our towels. Exhausted from hours of play, our bodies shivering and buffeted and raw, we would drag back up to where she sat, eerily quiet in her chair, and she would shift her gaze to us and point to the cooler to tell us we could have a soda. I remembered the taste of that soda—always grape because she knew it was our favorite—the first sip of it taken as I sat wrapped in my towel and slowly warming in the sun. The cold bright sparkle would hit my throat with a dazzling burst, and it was like awakening back into the sweet world of the living. And that feeling came with the understanding that we were all sorry and it felt good to be sorry, because now we could all be absolved of our bad deeds.
My brother and I would sit in the bliss of our restored grace, drinking and chatting, drowsy and sated, our mouths deepening to purple stains, and my mother would sit back and watch us—a fresh, curious affection blending with the lingering contempt in her gaze, contempt for our sticky purple mouths, for Eliot’s shrill uneven speech, and for my compulsive fingers pulling my bathing suit straps up into my mouth to be sucked and chewed incessantly. And we watched her watching us, both of us dimly aware that these helpless acts were somehow connected to our transgressions that day, lingering evidence of our depravity, linked to her certain disapproval: her strange children, strangely alive.
It was that gaze of my mother’s that over the years could turn me back into myself and show me what I couldn’t see otherwise: those deeper tremulous corners of my being, dark unreached places where my soul like a spider dwelled, in cringing strangeness and fear. As we grew up, my mother continued to watch us as if we were bizarre creatures who had stolen her flesh and blood right out from under her nose. Who were these creatures in her house? And her love for us despite our monstrosity was a rare thing she periodically held out in our sight, like something of grotesque beauty she had found and wanted us to glimpse. Look, don’t touch, she seemed to tell us. Or you might get nothing.
This was how it looked to us over the years, my mother’s love like a thing of fragile design, something that could hardly withstand all our prodding needs and demands. We hovered as near as we could, searching it out with a complicated sense of wonder and fear, shrinking even in our advances, shy and eager for any little portion we could get. But we lived in dread of her vacillations, those small refusals of love that accumulated over the years, each one making us more aware of our own uncertain worth, warning us of inevitable rejection, and so finally to avoid being pushed away, we fled. We sought our own escape.
But Natalie’s past stalks her at every turn. With her mother recently killed in a tragic house fire, and her runaway brother, Eliot, missing for years, Natalie and her father Boris only have each other. When a cryptic voicemail implicates her mother’s gypsy roots in her untimely death, Natalie begins to consider the demons that consumed her mother, and drove her brother away. With increasing suspicion, she traces her mother's mysterious family legacy back to the gypsy neighborhood she left behind.
As a wary Gypsy community tracks her every move, Natalie resolves to confront the dysfunctional and tragic figure at the heart of the mystery: the dead matriarch herself. Smart, elegiac writing, and a page-turning drive, make this a wonderful literary thriller with a hero as intriguing as the mystery.
The Unnamed Press publishes literature from around the globe. Whether it's fiction, memoir or something in between, we are always interested in unlikely protagonists, undiscovered territories and courageous voices. Launched in 2014, we plan to publish 20 titles in 2016.