“Mother and Child,” oil on canvas, by Helene Schjerfbeck, 1886.

by Vanessa Tamm

You remember running barefoot on a long road that spiraled down a mountain, and the road was wet, and bits of gravel cut into your soles, and on either side of the road was a steep drop where people liked to dump their broken television sets and their car batteries and their trash. Your mother’s sweaty hand was holding the collar of your dress, pulling you down the mountain, faster, faster, and as you ran beside her, you noticed a new ceramic sink someone had thrown out. It lay upside down with its silver pipes sticking up into the air like it was signaling for help, signaling to you, and you felt sorry for leaving that sink behind, the flowering ivy already starting to twist round the taps, as if you were leaving yourself to rust and crack and break apart in the dirt. You kept your eyes on the sink for as long as you could, an apology of sorts, as you and your mother ran from your father who was back inside your big warm house beating down your bedroom door.

Then you were sitting at a kitchen table that was round instead of square and your neighbor was setting a glass of water in front of you and folding her hands on her bulging stomach. You could hear your mother speaking in the other room, her voice high and frantic like the bird your grandma used to own, the blue one who grew anxious whenever someone tried to feed it until it finally starved to death. Your mother was repeating she was fine, faster and faster, as if that would make it true. A candle in a glass jar was burning on the neighbor’s counter right beside a photo of a little boy who had a purple birth mark covering his chin. You remember the candle smelled of lavender; you remember you felt sorry for the little boy.

Behind you, up the road, your father was trying to find where you and your mother might be hiding, opening wardrobes and looking under all of the beds and checking inside the bread basket, where he found half a loaf of sourdough. He tore the loaf into pieces, still racing up and down the stairs, until there were tiny bits of bread scattered throughout the house. Your mother had left her purse and your shoes and all of her money because there wasn’t any time, she had to fly with you down the back stairs, so you sat there stroking the plastic tablecloth and trying to hide your dirty feet beneath the chair, wishing you had grabbed your jelly sandals. All the time the neighbor was urging you to drink the glass of water, faster, faster, and the man on the radio was shouting about the game, and your mother, still cradling the phone, was whispering to the players, rooting for her team, praying for them to win.

But when she asks you,
What can you remember?
out of the blue on a Saturday night as you’re walking to your car, you think about the hours sitting at her table speaking of sewing patterns and picture frames and weekly scores; you think about the harmless things and pleasant things she worked so hard to keep; you think about the way she grabs your hand when somebody strikes out. So you turn away and tell her, so slow that it sounds true,

I remember a ball soaring past the bleachers, and music filling up the stands, and a crowd of strangers gathered in the floodlights to cheer and stamp and lay their hopes on one good night.

“So Slow That It Sounds True” originally appeared in Meridian.

Vanessa Tamm holds a BA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London. She was a finalist for Meridian’s 2019 Short Prose Prize, and her work has appeared in Cimarron Review, Epiphany, Zone 3, and elsewhere.