"THE COLLECTIVE DEHYDRATION OF MOTHERS"
Stage I: effacement.
At first, you think it’s just dehydration, that perhaps your cells are shriveling like an aging, dried-up bean. After all, there are many reasons why that might happen. There’s the fluid lost in birth; amniotic fluid and elimination fluid and blood fluid and ankle fluid. The pain that blossoms, the pain that lingers, the pain that is lost and then leaks from your pores. The fluid that dries up, down there, like a parched well crisscrossed with the bleak reality of shadows.
So you take care to hydrate, to rest, to keep a glass of water by you at all times. You think that by replenishing your lost fluid, you’ll somehow become whole again.
Stage II: active.
It’s not long before you realize: no, it’s certain. You really are getting smaller. Day by day your little life suckles, drains your fluid and promptly, heedlessly, vomits it back up. So the fluid is no longer within you but marked forever as stains upon your previously pristine, shiny surface.
You realize you’re marred by the sight of those stains; not just milk stains, but also blood stains the baby swallows from your shredded body. That slowly, slowly, you’re dying from a thousand invisible cuts derived from slashes made by the surgeon’s swift, sharp blade.
Each day, a new cut sprouts from an old one, and you lose another ounce of blood. But you can’t complain because remember? You asked for this.
Then, there is the transmutative quiet of the process; the process of blossoming, of longing, of becoming more transparent. A feeling of insubstantiality that is equal parts liberating and confronting. You are told your cells are 70% water. But what of the other? What of the 30%?
You can feel it, the transformation. You feel the 30% getting smaller, disintegrating, washing away like a slowly-eroding shore. It happens gradually, to be sure, but one day you’ll put on your well-worn cardigan and find that it billows around you, as though you not only lack fluid, but also substance and light.
And one day, you’ll examine yourself and find that you weren’t condensing. You were melting. And now you are reduced to a puddle on the floor.
Stage III: the after
It’s hard to say when it happens, because at this point you’re not sentient, you’re not cognizant. You’re just a reflective body of water splashed across worn concrete.
But one day, the sun comes out, and it warms you, and you feel your individual atoms being vaporized. You’re floating and you’re floating and you’re mingling with the mist of a million other mothers. Mothers that whisper and surround you and comb the curls from your hair, and spread their long fingers through the fog of your translucent, evaporative state.
And you and these other mothers coalesce into clouds, until you’re crowding each other in the bloated sky. You’re gray and you’re stormy and most of all, you’re angry; angry because you were never told it would be like this. Or maybe you were told, but you didn’t listen. Or maybe you just never asked.
The moment comes when the pressure drops. It might drop minutely, or rapidly, or languidly; just enough to precipitate you into rain. So you break away from the collective cumulus and fall back to earth, softly, in the form of a hundred thousand tiny raindrops.
It’s your children that you seek, that you reach for with your multitude of moist droplets. You find them kneeling in the verdant garden you prepared earlier, their faces and hands all streaked with mud.
You land on their cheeks, dilute their tears, fritter them away with your warm wash of rain. The children smile and stick their tongues out, giddy with laughter, drinking your life-force direct from the sky.
After all, what is the role of a mother, other than to briefly touch their faces? To give them life, so that they can sustain themselves, and one day plant a garden of their own?
Having done your duty, you splatter onto the ground beneath their feet. You find yourself soaking into the damp, warm soil, sinking through lush layers of mud. Re-joining the dirt, the tree roots, the bones of your mother and her mother and all the mothers that came before you. The mothers that lived. The mothers that died. The mothers that gave away all their fluid, evaporated, then fell back to earth as rain.
Keshe Chow is a Chinese-Australian veterinarian that lives in Melbourne with three humans and two cats. She was the winner of the Perito Prize in 2020 for short fiction, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Rust + Moth, Cross & Crow Keys, and others.