It was May when my mother’s mouth disappeared. But it wasn’t as if we hadn’t been expecting if for awhile.
They called it Wondjini, I think because it looked good on the side of pill bottles. You know, Experil: indicated for Wondjini. Far sexier than an “itis” of some variety.
Everyone was really nice when Mom was first diagnosed. It wasn’t like when Maria’s father got hepatitis and everyone avoided her at school and wouldn’t shake her hand at Mass. That’s the great thing about Wondjini. It’s not a cover your mouth with a tissue sort of disease. It’s an everyone brings casseroles until you can’t eat them anymore disease.
When Mom first came back from the Wondjini clinic, she had a handful of beautiful pamphlets talking about how Wondjini doesn’t have to ruin your life and how treatments didn’t have to be invasive and a bunch of other stuff that I didn’t read. I was sitting at the dining room table, the backlit surface a soft green, Mom’s favorite, but my scrapbook stuff was blocking most of it.
“Can I have these when you’re done with them, Mom?” I asked, tapping the pamphlets.
Mom rubbed the skin at her temple and threw her purse down on the counter. “The what? Oh. What do you want those for?” She seemed to remember the scissors in my hand. She said again, “Oh. You can have them now.”
They had beautiful glossy photographs of healthy-looking men and women running with dogs and washing radioactively bright oranges and frolicking in the sort of perfect grass that is only achieved with a lot of raking and chemicals. If you took out the bit about Wondjini, they could’ve been pamphlets for a lot of things. Gym memberships. Couples therapy. Teeth whiteners.
I cut out the prettiest of the pictures and carefully pasted them in my scrapbook. The glossiness of the Wondjini photos made the ones I’d cut out of the newspaper look drab and ordinary. Old-fashioned. Even the pictures Mom printed out for me from her computer looked better (although that was cheating — found photos were far better than searched-for ones).
My grandmother had started my scrapbook with me, several years ago, a little bit before she got sick. It was for my birthday. Mom had gotten me a subscription to Kidzone, an online game, but my grandmother said that I needed to know the real way to have fun. Mom rolled her eyes and said “I know, in case the power goes off and we have to rough it walking uphill to school both ways like the old days, right?”
“Not my old days,” my grandmother said. “But there’s more to life than staring into a screen.” So she got me a bunch of magazines – they were mostly for old people like her, that still read print periodicals. So I had to work to find photos that weren’t of old people smiling about not having arthritis pain or having beaten Wondjini or having more energy than ever because of great new herbal supplements! We worked out that nature magazines were the best, because they had more foxes and fewer wrinkles. I had so many pictures of cute, rare wild animals that I taped up the extras around my bathroom mirror.
Anyway, Mom got great pamphlets. And the clinic subscribed her to a pretty magazine called Living the Life.
“It should be called You’re Still Alive or Don’t Die Before the Next Issue,” Mom said. She didn’t bother to read it before she tossed it onto the dining room table for me to cut up. She also let me have all the ‘March for a Cure’ leaflets, although they didn’t have interesting pictures.
My sister Andie started fighting with Mom about the same time that Mr. Barbour down the road got taken away. We’d been noticing his mouth getting smaller over the past few weeks, but he still had loads of time to go and he’d always seemed really strong — the neighbors always said that “he’s a fighter, Ralph is, and he is really strong” — but apparently he went crazy and cut his mouth wider with a paring knife and had to be taken away.
That normally didn’t happen.
Mom started checking herself in the mirror after that. She’d spend an hour in the bathroom, looking to see if her mouth was getting narrower or her eyes any blacker. She’d poke at the skin over her ribs as if she could feel if everything inside her was getting constricted and falling in on itself.
Andie would walk by the door and cluck her tongue, but Mom would either not hear or pretend not to hear.
“Come on,” she told me one morning. “We’re all getting out of the house. This is ridiculous.”
She made Mom come with us, and we drove into town. For some reason, I was feeling really cry-ish that day, and so she flicked through the different paint options on the car until it was the one that made zebras run across it. She knew that was my favorite, and so I smiled even though I still felt like crying on the inside.
The mall was a dizzying palace of sensory delights. Since it was getting close to Christmas, the floor danced with advertisements for toys and amusement parks; the advertisements lit up underneath my feet as I jumped from tile to tile. All around us, teens chattered: to each other and to themselves, their wireless earpieces almost invisible inside their ear canals. Andie, ignoring the chattering and the adverts, took us for milkshakes. Mom tapped on the promotional poster for the milkshakes, showing Andie the asterick next to ‘milk’, explaining that it was a new milk substitute that was less likely to cause allergies. Andie made an aggravated noise and bought three shakes anyway. I didn’t drink much of mine because it gave me a headache. Andie drank hers with a look on her face like a soldier going into battle. Mom sipped hers and then threw it out when she thought Andie wasn’t watching (she was). Then we went shopping for new school clothing for me and a new skirt for Mom that Andie made her buy and I picked up one of the color fliers for the department store for my scrapbook. On the way back, Mom stopped in the mall bathroom and the FastFreeze bathroom and in a gas station bathroom. On the last one, Andie went in after her and dragged her back out the car.
“Staring at yourself in the mirror isn’t helping!” Andie snarled as soon as she shut the car door and started down the highway again. It was getting dark and the lights that lit the pavement from under the shoulder of the road had just come on. “Look, I got this for you.”
She handed Mom a flier for the Walk for a Cure. It showed a family of four — a grainy, photo-copied black and white image of a smiling father and mother and sister and brother — and underneath, it said, One out of every four Americans will get Wondjini during their lifetimes. Will you walk with us for a Cure?
“What, they’re going to find a cure on the sidewalk?” Mom asked.
“Don’t be a bitch,” Andie said, shocking both me and Mom. “You aren’t even trying to fight it. You don’t even read the mags the clinic gives you. You’re just waiting to die.”
“Everyone just pretends this is normal,” Mom snapped. “That it’s some sort of coming-of-age process. You get Wondjini and you live or you don’t and if you do, you’re a hero, and if you don’t, so sad, but that’s life, but no one stops to think about what it really means. Well, I’ll tell you what, I watched Mom die and she was the strongest person I know. I had to watch that. I got there just in time to see her walk into the lake, did you know that?”
Andie flushed and said no, she didn’t. But of course she hadn’t. She had been at college the night that my grandmother died. A neighbor phoned Mom and told her she thought she’d seen a woman who looked a lot like my grandmother walking down the road, and Mom hung up the phone and put me in the car because she couldn’t leave me alone. I thought we’d go drive around the neighborhood looking for her, but that was before I knew about the lake.
I was torn between wanting to find my grandmother and hoping we wouldn’t; she was a strange, alien creature now, with thin ribcage, loose-jointed, long arms, and glossy black eyes. And no mouth; no lips; not even a memory of them on her smooth face. I’d heard about what Wondjini did to your internal organs, how it chewed them up and how if the doctors cut your mouth back open, they flooded back out of you and you died in howling agony.
I didn’t think I did want to find her after all.
Mom raced between the scenically sculpted lawns of the neighborhood with the single-minded determination of someone who knew where they were going. She drove past the eerie wall of painted faces — hundreds of heads with no mouths painted on the rock wall created when the highway cut through the hills — and straight to the black lake, just in time to see my grandmother standing up to her ankles in it.
She threw open the driver’s side door before the car even stopped and shouted to my grandmother, “Mom, no!”
My grandmother turned just long enough to see me in the passenger seat, and then she turned back around, and like everyone else at the end, she walked into the lake. Beyond her, other recent bodies floated, the white ghosts of aliens drifting in an infinite black.
Mom hadn’t been quite the same since then. She’d been harder. In the car, today, looking away from Andie, I thought Mom would probably be crying now, though, if the Wondjini hadn’t taken that from her too.
But in the end, Mom did the walk. She walked with hundreds of other people, some who had mouths, some who didn’t. Some who just had the black eyes. I walked with her, my own eyes stinging from the exhaust of traffic passing by in the other lanes. They didn’t find a cure on the sidewalk. They found vendors who sold them soft drinks (now with zero calories) and they found a soft bank of chemically treated green grass to rest on, in the checkered shade of a cell tower, and they smiled at the cameras that videotaped them and sent their images to a satellite that would send them back to us on the news at 11.
In June, Mom walked into the the lake with my grandmother, and the next day, I stood in the bathroom, peeled off the pictures of animals, and measured the width of my lips with my ruler.
Author’s Note: A ranty short story after being barraged with invites for Relays for Cures this month. Don’t mind me.
For our common prompt “Wondjina.”