The Songs Her Mother Used to Sing

Marigold Henry was twenty-three when she made her first child, from deer entrails and kitchen scraps.

Brian provided the entrails. She’d known he was supposed to contribute to the process. Marigold’s mother hadn’t told her much, but she’d gotten that far. Usually when blood-slicked plastic bags came home from Brian’s hunting trips, he’d throw the unwanted cuttings into the yard and shoot coyotes creeping in after sundown. This time, he’d left the deflated bag beside the door for Marigold to find. He’d always said, even back in school, that he’d wanted children.

The baby she shaped was soft; she stuffed it with sawdust from Brian’s workshop for solidity. But she didn’t think she’d done it quite right. It only wriggled obscenely, a rubbery sack without top or bottom. Marigold ransacked her memories, the things her mother must have told her about childrearing, but came up empty-handed. You never listen, her mother always said. Marigold had learned too late that she was right. Sometimes silences spoke more than words.

The baby never cried. Brian was so proud, told his friends what a good baby it was, so easy. Marigold thought babies should cry. While Brian worked a shift, Marigold took the kitchen shears and carved a crooked mouth, seamed up the ragged edges, and set them with pearls from the necklace she’d worn for her wedding (false ones, but good enough for a starter set).

The baby did cry, after that, forever using the mouth she’d given it to squall for food, bruising her with its newfound bite. Brian despised the crying. He disappeared for long stretches to the garage, where an engine’s full-throated song drowned out the sobbing.

Marigold’s mother must have shown her how to be in the world, to be part of it. If she could remember what her mother had done–but she could not.

She remembered Sunday school, though. If clay had been good enough for God, it was good enough for Marigold. From backyard mud she shaped a proper face onto the formless mass. With her thumbs, she pressed indentations for two tiny eyes. The clay hardened in the sun, but it was fragile. It flaked when she added eyes in the robin’s-egg blue left over from the front door.

Seeing the world didn’t help the child understand it. Now it wailed whenever it lost sight of Marigold, and oh, the reach of its vision was so narrow, the walls of Marigold’s world squeezing tight. It was summer now and they slept together, the baby and Marigold, on the porch with the mosquitos so they didn’t disturb Brian.

Years ago, for their honeymoon, Brian had taken her to Florida. They’d played mini-golf and sipped Coronas on the beach. Marigold still had the shells she’d sifted from the sands. She gave the baby two, for ears, so she could sing the songs her mother had always sung to her. But when her lips brushed the pink-sheened curl of those ears, she could muster no music. She had nothing to say, and now nothing to sing, and so sometimes she yelled instead, hollow empty words that sent the dogs cowering beneath the bed like on stormy August nights.

When she could gather the strength, Marigold went out. She took the baby to the library, the playground, the supermarket. This, she sensed, was what she was supposed to do. She met other mothers, other infants. Sometimes, if she felt very brave, and sometimes, if she felt very small and afraid, she asked these women how they did it.

Other women, with insomnia’s livid bruises about their eyes, said it was a matter of instinct, motherhood came as naturally as breath to the lungs, or blood to a wound. Other women, with gouges in the flesh of their shoulders and arms where tiny teeth had torn, said she should give more of herself to her child. Other women, tired, heart-bruised, smiling, said she was doing fine. These women were the worst of all.

When her mother planned a visit, Marigold wept with relief to have answers within reach at last. But when she arrived, there was no time for questions. Her mother hated the dogs; their barking would upset the baby. She didn’t like the nursery; too bright. She ran her fingers over the baby’s gums and wondered why Marigold had used pearls, of all things. Buttons had been good enough for her–for Marigold’s grandmother, too. And good meat for the baby’s heart? Extravagant. Wasteful.

Marigold put her hand on her chest, over the place where, when she was small, her mother had cut her open and drawn in a heart with black felt-tip marker. She waited for the storm to subside; she’d weathered worse. And when she found the space to ask at last: could her mother sing a lullaby, like she’d sung to her own daughter? Marigold’s mother hummed a bit of Johnny’s Theme and excused herself to the porch for a cigarette.

Marigold’s hopes broke wide open; all her questions flew away. She stayed with the baby, who bit at her shirt as viciously as ever. She had nothing left to ask, nothing to say, not even to shout.

Her mother left after a long airless week, and Marigold took out the kitchen shears again.

She didn’t take them to the baby’s tender flesh this time. Hunched over the sink, she cut herself open and found her quivering heart.

The muscle was strong, twitching fast beneath her fingers. So much more than the simple, symmetrical shape her mother had given her to start with. The rest she’d grown herself, over many years. It didn’t even fit in her palm anymore. So much more than it had been; enough, she thought, to share.

The shears shook as she sliced a piece free: not too much, not more than a little one could bear. With a good sharp knife she cut it up and muddled it with milk and she sang to the baby, feeding her the pieces, encouraging her to chew.