The Mother
by Marie Lazzari

I.

The visits were all different, yet much the same. They followed a pattern that each of us had come to know and only later came to realize held true for all. Of course, at first none of us knew about the others. And for most of us it was the same: an acquaintance struck with a fellow adherent, friendship growing out of the fellowship of shared devotion, and then, the surprise of learning that he, too, attended on her. The news could be received with dismay—especially is we suspected that one of the others had been with her more often, or longer, or had obtained greater favor Fledgling friendships could founder. There were rumors of a shooting, a stabbing, or both.

But gradually, we began to see that despite our fears, none of us seemed more likely than any other to earn her trust. We began to see the value of pooling our scant information. Some few, of course, would not throw in with the group. It may have been that they thought themselves especially favored and were unwilling to risk losing the ultimate benefaction.

Most of us, though, were close to despairing of ever seeing the fabled object, if indeed it even existed. So we met often and shared our stories, agreeing that if any one of us ever succeeded, the success would be shared by all. There was talk of a museum, or at least, some small shrine, of which her prize—if it existed, if she would ever produce it and part with it—would be the centerpiece.

II.

Nobody knew how old she was. It was believed by many that she had been the Master's contemporary, perhaps even colleague. Others said that the name she used had been improperly appropriated, that she was not who she claimed to be. She could have been younger than the dead Master, or she could have been much older. There simply was no way to tell. Her face was full, round, and not deeply scored with wrinkles. In some lights, however, and from some angles, the skin showed itself lightly etched all over with tiny fissures fanning from the outer corners of her unfathomable eyes and spilling, minute dried riverbeds, from the inner corners of her eyes down her face. The discolorations of age infused her papery skin. The roundness of her visage, the glossy darkness of her narrow eyes, the uneven blotching of her complexion conspired to give her the appearance of a damaged, outsized baby doll.

Her hair was a shaggy mass of gray, enfolding her neck and shoulders like a tattered shawl. She sat in bed. She was always in bed, surrounded by pillows, layers of linen, books, pens, papers—and cats. Few of us were even willing to guess at the number of cats sharing her abode with her. "At least eight," on asserted. "More than a dozen," another opined.

So: the visits always followed a pattern. You would have made contact first—she sought no company. We never did determine how she decided whom she would see, and when. One day—and it might be the day after you mailed your first letter or package or completed you first phone call, or it might be months later—you would receive your invitation. These were all the same: a slip of ivory card stock with a narrow silvery gray border. "Come at _______" was printed on the card in the same shade of silvery gray. A date and time would be written in. It was never mailed. It would appear in your mailbox or doorway one day. Sometimes you would find it tucked under the windshield wiper of your car, or on your desk at work.

You would arrive, early, and pace nervously, circling the building or perhaps even the block, until you approached the door at the designated hour. You learned to bring something with you, something that could be the focal point of the first few moments. It was simply too awkward otherwise, especially if she was in one of her ... moods.

A slim, pale young man opened the door to you knock. He was perhaps twenty years old and perhaps six feet tall. He was very slender, very wan. Wispy white hair drifted over his forehead. Colorless eyes never made contact with your own. He would admit you and lead you though a series of rooms to the foot of the stairs. It was there, in one of the rooms through which you passed. You had to walk past it, but you learned not to stop or stare, certainly not to touch it. The enameled white surface of the freezer was nicked, chipped, and dusted with cat hair of every color and length. The enormous padlock was always in place. The boy gestured toward the stairs, and you climbed them alone.

The rooms were always dimly lit. If you came in daylight, heavy curtains would be drawn, admitting little light. If you came at night, only a few dim lamps would be burning. The air was cool and filled with endlessly swirling motes of dust and cat hair.

Sometimes she watched you come, expressionless. Other times she watched with a friendly, open countenance, as if she was happy to see you. Sometimes, too, she did not look up at all as you approached, continuing with her reading, writing, or needlework. She was capable of ignoring you for the length of an entire visit. You always prayed that she would not choose to do this.

You would proffer your gift. She would accept it, graciously or not. You would talk, she would talk. Almost always, she would have offered you a chair. Sometimes, though, she did not.

And then, at some point, the youth would climb the stairs, bearing a tea tray. "The mistress will have her tea now, and you will leave," he would say. There would be an exchange of good-byes—or she would instantly cease to notice your very presence at her bedside. You would rise and leave immediately—you had learned to do this. The boy would follow you down the stairs, hold open the door for you. He would speak to you as you stepped out: "She will see you again on ________," naming a future day and time; or "She will not see you again."

We never could tell which of them made this decision, and how it was communicated to the other. Surely he was merely in her employ, and all such decision were hers? Or was there some other relationship between them, something more subtle and complex? And after all, did it matter? Did anything matter except what we had all come to believe was preserved in that freezer?

III.

The rumors had started within a year of the Master's death. A few postings on a few web sites claimed to be from personal friends or acquaintances, and hinted at private holdings—a manuscript, letters, a collection of treasured objects—that might be available for viewing or even sale. Then, one day, that single posting, under an obvious pseudonym, making an entirely outrageous claim—or was it outrageous? "He is gone, yet not utterly gone. He died unmarried, but not childless."

We were electrified. Was it possible? Could He have fathered a child? We, who had known so little about His life and had been so late in learning of His death, longed to know if it was true. We bombarded the anonymous source of the tantalizing hint with pleas for more information.

For a long time nothing. Then, a second posting. "His child lived but a few hours and spoke His name before dying."

This time we did not waste our time imploring the unknown person for more information. Hackers set to work. And the posting was traced to an old woman living alone in a city not far from the city where He was believed to have lived and known to have died. One of us obtained a name. Another, an address. And we began our tentative approaches.

IV.

Over the years the story took on the quality of legend. There were countless variations, but the basics were the same. Many years earlier, the woman and the Master encountered one another on a moonless night at or near the grave of an earlier Master who had lived and died a lifetime before. Each was vacationing, and each had left a traveling companion or family member behind to visit the gravesite alone, long after dark. Neither had been there before. Moved by the gravity and strange excitement of the moment, they coupled on or near the grave, and then parted silently, neither revealing a name to the other.

In one version of the story they never met again. Another holds that years later, they found themselves employed by the same firm. Neither ever alluded to their single meeting. They were cordial, nothing more. None of the woman's or the Master's friends or family knew of the encounter. He, of course, never knew that there had been consequences of their actions that night.

The pregnancy had not been of ordinary duration. The birth, too, was not—usual. The child was not fully formed, or fully grown—or fully human. It was, in fact, a tentacled monstrosity. Whether the result of the Father's seed, the mother's genetics, the site of the conception, none could say. But the stories all agreed on the external features of the newborn abomination.

In length it was said to be some 10 to 14 inches. A cephalopoid head, seemingly without a skull, lolled on humanoid shoulders. One arm was roughly human in shape, but ending in a flat paddle-like flipper rather than a hand. The other arm was missing. In its place a cluster of tentacles, of varying thicknesses and lengths, splayed out. The thing's torso was long, slightly curved, rubbery-skinned, yellowish gray in color. It terminated in a pair of stunted froglike legs. The feet were webbed.Vague features appeared low on the bulbous head—flat nasal openings, a slitlike mouth, a single empty, withered eye socket. Its sex was indeterminate.

It is said that the mother reacted with neither joy nor horror to the birth. She is said to have quietly held the thing for three or four hours, until it died in her arms. Then—the jar, the preservative, the freezer. As for it speaking His name … all but the most devoted of us rejected that fantastic notion.

V.

And now, with the Master dead and gone, those of us who admired, respected, or, not to put too fine a point on it, worshipped Him for what He had accomplished as a writer during His lifetime burned to know the truth. Was the old woman the mother of his illegitimate tentacled monstrosity or not? Had there ever been such a thing born? Was the whole thing the mad rumor of a crazed fan, or of the old woman herself? And so we paid court to her, this capricious hag in her decrepit surroundings. We bought toys and treats and small objects—embroidery silks and carved bone boxes and rare books—for her. And she knew what we all longed to know, and we knew that she knew, and so we engaged, over and over, in the stiff figures of our formal dance, drawing near, drawing apart, turning away, turning again together, eyes meeting and parting.

Would the exasperating creature never tell one of us, show one of us? We grew incensed. After all, what right did she have to withhold the truth—if it was the truth—from those of us who treasured His work and kept alive His memory? Always impatient with the elaborate rituals of the visits, we began to rebel. Told by the youth to return in two days' time, one of us did not. Then another arrived unannounced and tried to force his way in.

Then I tried the same.

Finally, we could stand no more. No one had been inside for weeks, nor had she responded to the few who had maintained contact by letter and by phone, pretending to know nothing of the insurrection that was fomenting. A number of us—most of us—gathered. Feeding on one another's anger and impatience, we broke down the door and entered.

The rooms looked very much the same—dim, dusty, the lower strata filled with dust and floating hairs. The freezer was still there, but the lock was gone and the top was open. It was empty.

It seemed almost pointless to investigate further, but a few of us ventured up the stairs. A few cats remained. They stayed a cautious distance from us, one or two hissing, most of them silent. The slim, pale youth had been dead for some days. He lay on the floor at the foot of her bed. Some desultory talk about contacting the authorities went nowhere. The woman, of course, was gone.

Occasional postings, ostensibly from her, appeared for several years thereafter. Most were quickly proven to be hoaxes. None of us ever saw the old woman again. I imagine her somewhere, sitting in semidarkness, surrounded by her books and her cats—and somewhere nearby, the jar holding the illegitimate tentacled monstrosity fathered by the Master.


 

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