Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tsantsa

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It wasn't called sexual grooming back then. And the shrunken head -- the tsantsa -- wasn't the usual expensive designer jacket or Hammacher Schlemmer übertoy.

Janey sat sideways across the upholstered wing chair, bare legs dangling over the arm, looking at photos of naked Amazon Basin people in National Geographic. She raised her eyebrows at her mother. "No way! Where did you get that?"

Denise handed her the wooden pedestal with the shrunken head on it. "Hey, aren't ten-year-old girls supposed to be reading Nancy Drew or something?" She laughed to show her approval that Janey was not reading Nancy Drew. "A private collector sent me some photos a couple of months ago and asked if I wanted to buy it. He'd gotten it illegally, of course, and couldn't sell it on the open market, so I said sure. Just a tiny lapse in my professional ethics." She smiled and winked at her daughter.

"So it's yours? Hey, are the eyeballs still in there?" Janey turned the pedestal, admiring the worried-looking forehead, the furry eye-lashes, the snout-like nose, the miniature ears.

"No. The skull, eyes, and brain would have been tossed in the river right after this guy was murdered and decapitated. It's hollow, like a bag. And no, it's not mine. It's yours."

Janey looked up in amazement. "Mine? Why?"

"Reminds me of your father. The strong, silent type."

Denise smiled again; Janey focused on the tsantsa. Then she set the pedestal on the coffee table and stood up to hug her mother. "Thanks! It's really neat."

Denise stroked her daughter's back. "Love you, Baby." Even after coming home from teaching, she still smelled like the lemony stuff she used in the shower. Janey buried her face in her mother's wonderful hair -- long, kinky, and dark blonde, so fine it floated in the slightest breeze.

They nuzzled and burrowed into each other.

The tsantsa saw nothing.

*

Late winter afternoon, darkening, but the vampires aren't out yet.

Got my groceries and mail, safe at home now. Double-sided dead bolt clunks twice: once to let me in, once to keep them out.

First sight of home is my desk, supervised by the tsantsa on its pedestal. The head is fist-sized, with long black hair and charcoal-darkened skin. Wears a fluffy cap of orange and yellow toucan feathers and long tubular earrings of iridescent green beetle wings. Most important, its eyelids are sewn shut, nostrils and ears plugged with pitch, lips laced together with cotton strings.

The tsantsa guards my telephone and computer, dangerous conduits of communication with the world outside my studio apartment. (I can see every part from every other part.) Reminder: loose lips sink ships.

No loose lips here.

On the wall behind the tsantsa, my list:

  • deep breathing exercises
  • relaxation techniques
  • hot bath
  • music
  • journal
  • crisis hotline

The last thing is crossed out because they always want to argue with me about semantics, about what is love and what isn't. I don't call them anymore.

The red light flashes on my phone. Even if I had been home, I wouldn't have picked up. Voicemail, caller ID, spam filters, firewalls -- my armor.

No rush. (Door locked? Yes.) Spinach and carrots go into the fridge, Doc Martens exchanged for sheepskin scuffs. "Raag Charu-Keshi" on the CD player, volume low, bass high, tablas and sitar. Cold Sarajevsko Pivo popped open.

Finally, voicemail: "Janey."

My breath stops. Janey's gone. I am J.T. Janey is third person, past tense, passive voice.

"Janey. He was taken off chemo and the other IVs yesterday. No fluids, no nutrients. He'll go fast now. He wanted to have his hospice care at home, so I'm doing most of it myself. I know it's a long flight from San Francisco to Richmond, but please come. Come soon. It would mean so much." Her thin, tired voice.

To whom would it mean so much? Her, me, God? What would it mean to Dad? Anything?

I take the beer and sit in my only comfortable chair to watch the pallid sunset through the blinds, the graying view of Sausalito across the bay.

Haven't seen them for 15 years. Placated Denise with letters and emails and excuses and promises. Apologized for my abrupt departure, for the hurt I caused her. Nudged our conversations into adult civility. Told her about my school work and (later) my job, about interesting films or restaurants or books. Tossed in casual references to friends and coworkers so she wouldn't worry that I was too isolated. Avoided talking about sex so she wouldn't worry about pregnancy or infection.

She stuck the odd check or book or music album/tape/CD (depending on the year) into long, confessional letters. All about her, ending with a brief series of rhetorical questions ("How's work?" "What's your weather like?") and "Much love from Denise and Mick," the latter written in her florid hand. I call four times a year: his birthday, her birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day. If he answers, he talks for two minutes and says, "Let me put your mother on." If she answers, she says, "He's not here right now."

Ten months ago, she added a P.S. at the bottom of my birthday card: "Mick's been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but the chemo/radiation should knock that out of his system soon. Wish us luck!"

I wished them luck and sent Dad a funny get-well card. Denise was noncommittal after that: chemo continues, trying a new drug, MRI scan shows no new tumors. Made it sound like a drag, not a death sentence.

Maybe that's all she thought it was.

The pale sun is gone now, but I keep the lights off. The final notes of the raga fade away.

Darkness. Silence.

Would a deathbed reconciliation be worth something? I fantasize about his apologies, hers, the warm family embrace as I hold my father one final time. Maybe it would feel normal and right.

But I'd better take the tsantsa with me.

*

Janey's mother usually treated her like a little adult: no baby talk, no Santa Claus myth, no Mattel products. She was Denise, not Mom or Mother. Janey's father was Mick (except when Denise wasn't around, when he was Dad). Denise discussed all subjects freely in Janey's presence, pulling no punches with politics, religion, or sex. Janey had always known about the evils of the Vietnam War, muscle cars, and patriarchy. She felt superior to the other kids at school because there was no television in her house.

Denise was Janey's main caretaker. She had taken pains to explain that this was not because she was the mother but because her work schedule was lighter and more flexible than Mick's. The university where Denise taught as an adjunct professor of anthropology was closer to home than the hospital where Mick worked nights as a nurse supervisor. (Denise walked; Mick commuted two hours daily.) Leaving the house shortly before Denise fixed dinner for Janey, Mick kissed them goodbye while shrugging on his jacket and fishing for the car keys in his pocket.

Before Janey had started school, her time to be with Dad was afternoon, after she had bounced him awake at noon. In her earliest memories, he's 35-ish with lots of bright brown hair and a bushy Fu Manchu mustache. She had loved to help him with little fix-it jobs around the house. He had given her a few miniature tools -- real tools for small hands, not toys -- so she could work with him: a little bench vise, a child-sized hammer, and (best of all) a little spirit level with that mysterious bubble inside.

Dad had great hands: warm and dry, slow and careful. He taught Janey by showing, not talking. They had poured a walkway in front of the house, and Janey pressed her small bare feet into the congealing concrete. Later, after the walk had set, rain always collected in the foot-impressions, and Janey squelched it out with her now-bigger feet. They had built a bat house and installed it under the roof overhang. No bats ever came. Dad thought they must need to be closer to the river.

What had happened to that magical little spirit level anyway?

After Janey had started school, she rarely saw Dad during the week. And his mandatory overtime, though Janey knew the family needed the money, often took a hunk out of his weekends.

At first, she missed working with him on the fix-it projects. Missed the clean smell of his soap and toothpaste and fresh cotton shirts. His raised eyebrows when Janey reported some particularly outrageous line of Denise's. His quietness, his lack of flash. Missed feeling peaceful and safe with him.

After a while, though, he gradually moved to the back of her mind. Denise sucked Janey's attention and energy.

Over the years, Denise's music became Janey's: Frank Zappa, Edgar Varèse, Buddy Rich. Denise would play the fourth movement of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade suite over and over, laughing and cheering as Janey banged out the snare drum part on tables and countertops, practicing the rolls, fills, drags, and flams that Denise had taught her.

Denise also gave her collection of old posters to Janey. The kiddy art on Janey's bedroom walls was replaced by Art Nouveau-ish ads for long-gone rock concerts, Pre-Raphaelite stunners by Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and even a valuable Cosmic Runner from 1968, signed by Peter Max. No longer did Janey wake up to powder blue and baby-girl pink; her morning eyes drank in acid green washing into vivid turquoise, overlaid by checkerboards of brilliant yellow and heart's-blood red.

The miniature carpentry tools gradually disappeared, replaced by some of Denise's anthropological artifacts, the ones she didn't keep at school. Janey's bookcase acquired a tall Karajá headdress of bright red macaw feathers, an extravagant Mayna pectoral heavily embroidered with pale white cowry shells, and a white Shipibo clay vessel decorated with geometric black mazes.

The prize, of course, was the tsantsa. Sitting on its pedestal on her dresser, it governed her room. It saw nothing, heard nothing, said nothing. It received, but never gave. Janey lay on her back in bed, watching it from across the room. Its presence was mysterious, spooky, but also strangely comforting. She never felt alone.

While Dad worked nights, Denise experimented with exotic cooking, feeding Janey Ethiopian stew on a big sourdough flatbread or Afghani qabili palau with fried raisins and pistachios.

Sometimes. Other times, Denise lay on the couch, tears trickling from the corners of her eyes. Janey made peanut butter sandwiches or heated canned chili and cajoled her mother into sitting up and eating a few bites. Then she'd put Denise to bed, do her homework, and lie on her back in her own bed, watching the tsantsa as she got sleepy.

Meanwhile, Dad's hospital celebrated 30 years of community service with the completion of a hundred-million-dollar expansion: a new Emergency Department, Heart Center, Ambulatory Surgery Center, Cancer Clinic, and intra-operative MRI.

Dad got promoted and stayed at work even more hours than before.

*

One night when Janey was 13, after a dinner of green corn tamales, Denise told her about fibs, poems that follow the Fibonacci math sequence of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, with each number in the sequence dictating the number of syllables per line. When Janey asked suspiciously if this was real poetry, Denise said, "Of course it is. This kind of poetry - syllabic -- goes back long before Shakespeare. It's for intellectuals like us who don't need jangling rhymes. Come on, let's try."

They wrote separately for a few minutes, then read their poems to each other. Janey had written

hi

there

Mickdad

I hope you

like this fib poem

I wrote it just for you, for you

Denise's poem was

my

own

baby

girl, daughter

of my flesh, I feel you

in, on, through, within . . . like my blood

"Oh, that's goopy!" Janey's face felt hot, so she got up from the table and went to get more mango juice. Denise stood up and caught her daughter, hugging her from behind and murmuring into her hair. Janey felt her breath coming hard for a minute or so before it slowed down. Then she turned to face her mother, and the two of them embraced, rocking back and forth together.

After that night, Denise sometimes left fibs for Janey in secret places: her book bag, shoes, jacket pockets. Some mornings Janey would see a white scrap of paper sticking out from under the base of the pedestal of the tsantsa. And there would be a fib, put there the previous night after Denise had left Janey's bedroom.

Janey kept Denise's fibs, stuffing the scraps of paper up inside the hollow head of the tsantsa, behind the sewn-closed eyes and mouth. When she was alone, she'd sometimes pull out the scraps, spread them out on her bed, and read the poems all over again. They confused her, making her feel special but strange at the same time. Then she'd give up and stuff them back inside the tsantsa before replacing it on its pedestal.

At first, she tried to write some fibs for Dad, but she was never satisfied. They were babyish, not good enough. As soon as she finished one, she'd think it was fine; but after a couple of days, she'd see that it was stupid. After a while, she gave up trying. Then, after another while, she tried writing them again.

She never gave the poems to Dad, though. They got stuffed up inside the tsantsa along with Denise's.

closed

eyes

see that

I love you

together we are

sphinxes with riddles but no words

Sometimes Denise told Janey bedtime stories. She'd say, "Once there was --," Janey would supply a subject, and Denise would take it from there. But if Janey offered subjects that Denise thought were trite (a naughty girl, a family of three rabbits, an evil witch), her mother would wrinkle her nose in derision and say, "Boring. I'm outta here. You'll have to do better than that tomorrow night." Then she'd sweep from Janey's bedside, leaving her daughter unkissed. But if Janey challenged her with an unusual subject -- a psycho robot, a squashed tomato, a smelly turd -- Denise would spin a wonderful story and reward Janey with tickles and kisses before the "Night-night, Baby."

in

the

darkness

I wonder

what's in your brown head

do you ever think of me?

Janey's 14th year was utterly crappy. Couldn't get algebra at all. She had never felt stupid before. Or ugly, but now her face kept breaking out. Even her hair, grown long like her mother's, didn't help. Unlike Denise's, fine and tossing, Janey's was lank and greasy. Sometimes Denise pushed Janey's hugs away, saying, "Eww! You need a shower!" or "You've got a real zit farm going there, kiddo."

And a boy at school had killed himself, maybe on purpose, with an overdose of heroin. She hadn't known the boy very well, he was just in a couple of her classes, but it was scary to think that someone she was used to seeing every day could just vanish from the universe.

Dad was quieter than ever. He no longer asked Janey to help him with his fix-it projects. Did he think she was too old for that stuff? He spent his scarce time at home reading or working on his computer. Did he think about work all the time? His mind seemed very far away.

One day Janey found a razor blade on the window sill in the girls' bathroom at school. She didn't wonder why it was there -- she knew several girls who cut themselves -- but she did wonder what it would feel like. She'd heard that it was an instant rush, an immediate relaxation.

It was her lunch hour, so she had a little time. She locked herself in the stall furthest from the door. Her first cuts were light and tentative, just a few short slices on the insides of her upper arms. The pain and blood were interesting, novel, and she did seem to feel a flicker of relief. She pulled her jeans and panties down to her knees. Her next cut was firmer, more deliberate, a four-inch slice across her lower belly, just above where the pubic hair began. She sat on the toilet, legs apart, watching the blood trickle through the hair.

Then she closed her eyes and leaned back against the cool tiled wall, her ugliness evaporating, the dirty black stuffing washing out of her body. Her breathing slowed and deepened. The air from the open window felt fresh on her face.

After the blood stopped, she reluctantly sat up and rough-cleaned her belly with damp toilet paper. There wasn't much she could do about the sticky matted pubic hair. She'd take a shower when she got home.

Had she thought about Denise's reaction when she picked up that razor? She couldn't remember.

That night, when Denise sat on the bed to say good night and had seen the cuts on Janey's arms, she'd gone ballistic. Yelling "Any more?" she had ripped open Janey's pajama top and yanked her pajama pants down to her knees, exposing Janey's whole body.

But when she saw the long, deep cut on the lower abdomen, her anger evaporated. She began to cry, loudly and convulsively, calling herself terrible names. As she wept on the bed, Janey had comforted her, told her that of course it wasn't her fault, that it would never happen again, and so forth. Denise's sobbing quieted as Janey stroked her hair and kissed her neck and back. After a few minutes, Denise turned on her side and embraced her daughter.

Janey was forgiven. Denise kissed her daughter's wounds to make them better, first the insides of the upper arms.

Then the lower abdomen, just above the pubic hair.

in

the

bedroom

the kiss cuts

like a featheredge

words are both blindfolds and razors

And so the cutting continued. As Janey gained finesse, she learned that even very small cuts could produce a great deal of blood from nipples, clitoris, and labia.

She also learned that she could upset Denise even more by "excusing" the cutting with flippant one-liners.

I had unprotected sex with Marilyn Manson.

I disobeyed the sign and fed the bears.

I turned on the shower and got sprayed by broken glass.

I am a sacramental offering to Satan.

The cutting was a relief, but seeing Denise cry also made Janey feel good. Triumphant.

And Denise always kissed the cuts--wherever they were--to make them better.

*

When Janey was 16, she began planning the separation. Her friend Russell helped her research colleges and universities. He requested that application forms and financial aid information be sent to his own house. The school counselor suggested that Janey look into technical writing -- a lucrative, expanding field that would fit Janey's aptitudes.

She decided on California State University East Bay. San Francisco was big enough and far enough away from Richmond to be safe. With Russell's forged parental signature, Janey was accepted to the program five months before her 18th birthday.

On that day, she was gone. She took some jeans and t-shirts, her leather jacket, some books, and the tsantsa with all the fibs inside. Everything else she left behind, even the valuable poster autographed by Peter Max.

*

The driver hands me my overnight bag and says, "Enjoy your stay in Richmond."

"Thanks."

The sidewalk in front of the house is now cracked and buckled from the roots of the big dogwood. I remember helping Dad plant that tree as a sapling. I look for my tiny footprints in the concrete. There they are.

Denise opens before I ring; she's been watching for me. She stands back to let me enter.

Her wonderful hair is gone. She's cropped and gray, old and tired, purple smudges under her eyes. Her head looks like a skull.

She falls on my neck. She seems very small. "Oh, Baby. I'm so glad you're here. Come in, come in."

I look over her shoulder toward the hospital bed in middle of living room floor. Something's on it, but it isn't Dad.

The smell. Sweet. Putrid. An inside-out smell. My own menstrual blood on a scented pad. The smell sticks to the back of my throat.

Denise reads my face, says, "It's fetor hepaticus, the breath of the dying. His liver's failing."

She leaves me standing, goes to his bedside. Picks up sponge on stick, sponge-lollipop, sticks it in a glass of water, then into the open mouth on the bed. No teeth, a black hole. Down the rabbit hole. If I move, I'll fall in.

"Janey, come and let him know you're here."

Can't look. Focus on the white sheet: small hills, valleys swell and fall continually, slowly, obscenely. "What's that?" I sound shrill, babyish.

"This electric air mattress prevents bed sores by constantly changing pressure points. Come over here and greet him. He probably won't respond, but he might hear you."

Can't. Focus on plastic bag, hanging on side of bed, attached to tube running underneath blanket over belly, hips, upper thighs. Brown gel in bag. Again, "What's that?" Voice still shrill.

"Urine. He's on a catheter."

"Why is it so dark? Is there blood in it?"

"No, it's just concentrated. He stopped drinking a couple of days ago."

She leaves him, comes to me, takes my hands. Hers are cold. I can't grip; she lets go.

"Come on now. He's been waiting for you. Let him know you're here." Her hand pushes my back a little.

Hair, mustache, eyebrows -- all gone. Cheeks caved in. One eye stuck shut with hardened gray mucus; the other open a tiny crack. "Can he see me?" Voice still babyish.

"Probably not. Dehydration impairs vision. But he might be able to hear you. You know, like when you hear the pilot's announcement on a plane? Sometimes you understand the words, but sometimes it's just noise? Go on."

There's nothing about Dad here. I don't see Dad, and I don't want this thing to be Dad. But I came to tell Dad that I loved him, so I'll say it.

"Dad." My voice is a whisper. "I'm here. I've come a long way to see you today."

No response.

She watches. "Louder. Tell him you love him."

Louder. Tell him you love him.

Louder, voice still too high: "I love you, Dad."

No response.

*

I sit next to the bed, hold his hand, mine sweating. Denise moves constantly, talks all the time -- to me, not to him. He's not her husband any longer, just a thing to be tended to. She tells me what she's doing, what signs she's watching for.

She skims inside the mouth with a saturated sponge-lollipop. Wipes the forehead with a damp cloth. Applies Vaseline to the corners of the mouth with a cotton swab. Applies lotion to the legs and feet. Straightens the blanket. Drops liquid morphine and diazepam under the tongue. Writes times and dosages on a yellow pad. Makes me take some of his tranquilizers. Closes the curtains at dusk, turns lights on low.

She keeps going. Keeps going.

There's nothing for me to do, nothing I can do. Now I sit on the couch and mechanically watch her mechanical movements. After a day of cross-country travel, with clock time everywhere, I've reached the end. If hours still existed, I would watch her for hours.

I watch her for hours.

After a while, she loses track of me and speaks to him. Sometimes I hear her tell him what she's doing and why: "Mick, I'm putting medicine under your tongue to help you relax. You don't have to swallow." Mostly, though, I can't hear what she says because her mouth is so close to his ear.

He never responds.

I think about my fantasy of a final family reconciliation. How naïve.

Later, asleep on the couch, I miss his exit.

*

The morning is cold, rainy. They take Dad away. They take the hospital bed away. I shiver; Denise drapes the old afghan around my shoulders.

The living room windows are cracked open to air the room, to let in the cat-piss smell of the boxwood hedge in front of the house. Denise starts a fire in the old pot-bellied stove. Orange light begins to flicker through its translucent mica windows.

She brings me a mug of hot tea. Doesn't she remember? I've never liked tea. I say thanks and set the mug down.

She says, "Janey. Baby. Can you stay a day or two?"

I close my eyes and shake my head no. I'm J. T. Janey's gone.

She turns her back to me and watches the rain trickling down the window. I'm supposed to go to her, hold her.

But I don't.

My overnight bag is still sitting by the front door. I get out the tsantsa. I get out my folding blunt-ended travel scissors, the ones I'm allowed to take on the plane.

I snip the tiny black stitches closing the eyelids and the big white stitches closing the mouth. I dig the plugs of pitch from the nostrils and ears. The scraps of paper with the fibs on them show through the new openings in the head. The paper has turned brown.

Denise watches me, her face frozen.

I stick slivers of fatwood kindling into the neck opening and put the head on the grate.

It catches immediately. Flares shoot up, showers of sparks flitter, plumes of black smoke unfurl. A noise like cellophane crackling. The hair flames and hisses, a torch, then is gone. The paper scraps blaze briefly, sending black bits spinning. Smell of burning charcoal, burning sulfur. The skin of the face relaxes, the lips and eyelids opening like petals, showing brilliance where darkness had been.

Only for a moment -- then darkness again.

We watch the fire in silence. Her face shimmers, reflecting the orange light of the flames. She's crying, of course.

I'm not.


Kathleen R. Sands is creating a collection of short fiction based on the displays of pathological human anatomy and other medical exhibits in the famous Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. Her fiction has been published in The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution and in Inkspill Magazine. She is a university English professor who has published scholarly work on the history of demon possession and exorcism. Somehow, she sees a connection between medical pathology and demon possession.


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Well written and very disturbing. I hope it's all fictional.
Holy fashizzle! I don't think I can sleep now...
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