The Almost Mother sits with me on a park bench, smiling to herself, humming a lullaby, while she looks for children to trip. A strange hobby, but it has me curious.
“Doesn’t that make you an awful person?” I ask her. “Trippin’ little children.”
At the query, she stops humming. She gives a shrug and flexes her foot, prepared to stick it out at the opportune moment and send some unsuspecting preteen face-down into the grass. Her smile runs awry, going crooked at the edge. Like a fight that’s waning inside her.
“Life’s awful,” she explains, her voice hollow, fraught with a strange world-weariness. She flicks her thumb at the world around her, looking bored and idle. “I’m not a monster, you see. I’m just preparing them early,” she tells me. “The kids.”
She pretends to be a bully, pretends to be all thorn and edges, but I know it’s the wound that speaks. The hurt that never healed, the blood that never bled. No, not completely. I sit across her wondering how to broach the subject, if I should even broach it.
It’s her hands that give her away. How her palm comes to rest on her abdomen, fingers benign, working out of reflex from some old memory that’s entrenched now, all while her eyes are still searching the field for children to trick.
I think the Almost Mother is misunderstood.
We fear her, pity her, look over her, but do we know her at all?
How she has dived through medical waste, looking for the thing she lost. How she flees at the slightest sound of a stroller or a toddler riding on a scooter; how sandboxes terrify her to this day; how she dies a little when somewhere some infant wrinkles up, gasps and then starts to cry. How she dies entirely at the bouquets sold for Mother’s Day.
She must hate her title.
The Almost Mother, the mother of what was and never became, the mother of a grey sac of cells that drops from her vagina like deadweight. She’ll carry that weight, she will carry it in the deepest, darkest groove of her mind, and there will be a date marked in the calendar year, not for a birthday, an anniversary but for the day that was almost more than just a day. Just like the sac of grey cells which could have been something more but didn’t.
“December 19th,” she murmurs, fingers tracing circles on the bench.
In her element, she’s math, physics and chemistry; she’s even science and religion put together. The Almost Mother doesn’t discriminate. She has looked for peddlers of fertility charms, looked for answers in the abodes of different Gods, has spent those eerie moments as Schrodinger, thinking of the cat in the box. Or in her particular case, thinking of the baby in the bin.
Is it there?
Is it not?
What did she do?
Worst, what did she not?
She’s stared at that bin for heartbeats— whose heartbeats she can’t really recollect.
She doesn’t tell me any of these things. Doesn’t tell any of us. Instead, she sits across me on the park bench, pretending to scheme. Our silence is interrupted, and we hear laughter in the distance. We are not prepared for the runaway group of kids who come bounding across the field: in shorts, sneakers and safety helmets, chasing one of their own. The group pursues a girl whose face brims with mischief and free spirit, a wildling who has rankled the boys by throwing twigs at them and is now on the run from her pursuers.
I notice the Almost Mother rising from her seat. I worry she’ll do it; I worry she will stick out a foot and send the poor child sprawling into the mud.
But she does no such thing.
Instead, she grabs the girl by the shoulder, wraps her arms around the child and shields her from the mob. The boys stop short of us, puzzled.
I look at the Almost Mother in surprise.
I want to ask her why.
But I know the answer already. The Almost Mother is you, me, the woman sitting on the park bench, even the father grieving in the transit. The Almost Mother is almost everyone, nursing a hollow that is raw and empty. A bereavement that will settle with time but never quite leave.