The only memories of my parents that my twin sister, Maria, and I have are all photographs, home movies, or stories. Sometimes, one of us will have a distant recollection of someone, a young woman, or a man, occasionally, leaning over our crib. They never say anything we haven’t heard a dozen times playing on old tapes in the living room, and their faces are far away and fuzzy. Out of focus. It is nearly impossible to distinguish fantasy and things cobbled together into what-might-be from memory.
We have lived with our Uncle Aden, his wife, Vivian, and our cousin, Charmont, for almost our entire lives. Aunt Vivian doesn’t speak much about our parents, and when she does, it’s with a sour note of distaste in her voice. Uncle Aden assures us that Vivian really does miss our mother, but that they were always at odds with each other, so she shows it in strange ways. He keeps a picture of his dearest sister on the mantle, so in a way, we have seen her every day. He has also given us mostly duplicates of every picture he says he has of our mother, or ones she herself collected. We keep them in a shoebox in our closet, where sunlight cannot fade them, where prying eyes cannot reach them, and where bad memories cannot seep out from underneath the door.
By now, Maria and I can make a timeline of theses photographs, illustrating our mother’s life from when she was a small baby to the time we last saw her, just by how she looks in them.
When she was little, our mother was always at her brother’s side. Fraternal twins practically joined at the hip, they complemented each other so perfectly. Uncle Aden was sturdy, bronze-and-gold where our mother was frailer, made of silvery fairy-floss and porcelain. She was serious when he was comical, high-strung when he was low-key. They both liked to be in the spotlight, consuming every bit of their parents’ attention that they were thrown.
As a young teenager, our mother had become sullen and sulky. She glares up from the pictures rebelliously, dressed in black and baggy clothing. Her hair is short and scruffy- almost as if she cut it herself- and she does nothing to make herself look pretty. It’s like she screaming at people to recognize her by highlight what she does not want to be, or what she does not think she is. And yet, there is a raw, angry, hurt, lonely beauty about her, something described in old folk tales and applied to those who were not of this world. I have enough knowledge of the fae to know what one looks like, and with those over-size green eyes that Maria and I inherited, my mother just radiates witch, power, magic, faerie.
In her late teens, our mother seems to have completely changed. This is after she met our father, and she is bright and vivacious. Her hair is longer; she has let it grow with her renewed vitality. In nearly every photo she is smiling impishly, like a child who has had her first forbidden and heady taste of a good red wine, and is eager to sneak another mouthful. When Uncle Aden talks about our father (which is rarer than Aunt Vivian talks about our mother), he says that he was exactly that for our mother: intoxicating, forbidden fruit that dangled just out of her reach most of the time. He was an older man, a charming rogue and a flirt who was a prince to come sweep our mother off her feet, a dragon to steal a damsel in distress.
The next set of photographs spans my mother’s pregnancy with me and Maria. Many of them are in silhouette as she stares out a window with the kind of hopeful hopefulness you see on the faces of children who have been told their beloved dog has run away. Day after day, she waited for my father to come take her away from a life with her overbearing mother and distant father. Day after day, she waited for some sign that she really was important to him, a phone call, a letter, anything to know that she hadn’t been used as a distraction and left to deal with the consequences of it by herself.
After Maria and I were born, after the three of us were united with my father again, begins the happiest time of my mother’s life. There are so many pictures taken in a house I cannot remember, or in a countryside that looks nothing like the green, but drizzly, England we have grown up in. Uncle Aden says that my mother and father lived in Switzerland, to be closer to an adopted aunt whom I have never met. She and my mother were close, apparently. She shares her name with Maria.
In these pictures, my mother radiates the brightness and life that she did when she first met my father, but now it is tempered with motherhood, aged a little under heartache. It is a strange type of worldliness that I have not yet begun to understand: she is joyful, at peace with herself in beautifully simple dresses that are nothing like the dark raiment of her previous years. These are bright and colorful and add to the glow in her face and eyes. Caught forever in time, she twirls and dances across the thick and glossy photographic paper, her now waist-length hair swirling around her. The faerie in her still cries out, but it is in celebration, with laughter and triumph. It is a golden, pulsing song that resonates in even the most silent of stills.
There is the obligatory marriage photograph, just the one, taken by a stranger in Spain when my parents eloped- after my birth, before my grandparents were even remotely ok with the idea of their daughter being involved with this man. It was done quickly, with no one else in view, but there is love in that picture. My mother smiles nervously, as if she fears that she’ll be caught, but there are tears of absolute joy in her eyes. My father tries to look stern and intimidating- like he might make a serious threat on your life if you dared to make any remark about all this- but he holds my mother securely.
A rare, well-worn photograph of our father is often one of the last happy photographs Maria and I look at. He is asleep in a chair, with us in his arms. Our mother took it, and Uncle Aden tells us that it was one of her favorites- one she was constantly taking out and holding against her heart, or tracing her fingertips over. It is one of the few in our collection that is not a copy. It is one of the few possessions, in fact, that we have of our mother. It is easy to imagine her pale fingers stroking against it, pressing it to her still warm chest, and on nights when the fact that our parents won’t ever return again haunts us, Maria and I pull this picture out of the box. We try to remember the click and flash of the camera when it was taken, the feel of our mother’s hands, our father’s scent- anything- and quietly repeating “They loved us”.
The pictures at the end of the timeline are the hardest to look at. After our father’s death- a heroic sacrifice or true cowardice? No one ever seems to know, although Uncle Aden says it was to appease the people who were coming after him, people who would have come after our mother and us had our father not done what he did- our mother became dark and haunted. She began wearing mourner’s black again, the dark colors washing out her already pale skin and highlighting the dark rings around her eyes, making her look as insubstantial as mist that burns away after the dawn. Her owlish green eyes stare off to a place unseen by mortal eyes in these few pictures. She has already detached herself from the world, and even when she holds her children, two of her last mementos of her husband, her hands do not seem to touch us.
Our uncle tells us that he has given us every picture of our mother that he has, but I know that’s a lie. I found the last picture a long time ago, when Maria and I were playing hide-and-seek, under his bed. But I have never told a soul. I couldn’t hurt them like that.
Under my uncle’s bed is a shallow box. The first thing beneath the lid is my mother’s death certificate. Cause of death (Suicide. Drowning. I had to look up that first word when I found the box), my mother’s name (at the time: ‘Alexa Kirkland Vargas’), date of birth and date of death are all listed. She’d been just one month and six days short of her twenty-third birthday.
Beneath the certificate lays a picture that the police took for identification. How Uncle Aden got it from them, I will probably never know. My mother is lying on a stretcher, her hair still heavy and dripping. A white sheet lays across her, ready to be pulled up over her face during transportation, but not quite covering the wedding dress she wears.
I don’t know if I can ever fully understand why she did this, or even if I can forgive her for it entirely. Mothers are supposed to do all they can to take care of their children, thinks a hurt and selfish part of me, even if their husband dies. They’re supposed to be there doubly, to fill in the gap that the father left.
I do know that there is expression on my mother’s dead face. Even if it’s faint, I can read the grief there, and it quells the hurt part of me that doesn’t want to forgive her. She didn’t want to leave us, but she was hurt too. Hurt so badly that she couldn’t even be present when she was alive. What kind of mother couldn’t smile for her children’s sake?
Alongside the grief, there is a sort of peace. It’s strange to see, and a strange thing to take solace in, but it’s there. Her face is more at peace than in the photographs when she wore all black. It’s as if a missing piece of her very soul has come back to her, although I know this is impossible.
That missing piece was my father, and he didn’t come to her. Her soul followed him.