‘Leah says that bras are oppressive,’ was the last thing I said to my mother, sitting up on the couch to unclip my own and pull it out through the sleeves of my shirt. I was fifteen. I had started wearing platform shoes to walk the mud flat outside our house because Leah had told me they looked good. Our periods were in sync.
‘Mm,’ was all Mum said.
She was sitting in the armchair under the light of the standing lamp, legs folded up underneath her, curtains pulled shut behind and blocking out the sun. My school uniform was draped across her lap or across the arm of the chair or it might have even been folded up on the end table, but it was waiting to be mended, and she wasn’t listening. She was sliding her needle under the topmost layer of skin at the heel of her hand, lifting and blistering it. Leah was teaching me to read palms, had told me that region was called the mount of Venus. Mum worried away at it for a while and then eventually gave up on my school shirt, blamed it on an incoming migraine that I had probably caused. Switched off the lamp and shut us into the hot dark of a curtained afternoon. She took a bottle of wine down from the top of the microwave and carried it with her to bed. I should have known then that something was wrong, but maybe I was distracted by my phone going off: Leah pulling me back before there was even a thought to construct, asking what time we were going to meet.
We were done up the same way. Hair braided in two down our backs, winged eyeliner with no other make-up to go with it. I had my shirtsleeves stretched over my hands, warping the fabric just the way Leah had taught me. Pulled sleeves made us look attractive and delicate, sensitive to cold. Not that we used the word delicate, but still, it was a look she had perfected. It was in the way her shirt fabric draped and the way the skin at her collarbone pulled taut whenever she turned to look at something beside her. The green veining on her eyelids, on the insides of her wrists. We pulled off our shoes and carried them, ran down through the wet sand and let our toes turn numb. Bands of crusted foam left behind at high tide crunched beneath our feet. The sun, just setting.
It was the cross-quarter, midway between the last equinox and the coming winter solstice, and we were there on the beach for an effigy burning for Samhain, the night that marks the beginning of the descent into winter. The effigy was my mother’s. She’d built it on commission over the last month, its frame coming together piece by piece on the grass outside her studio so I could see it from my bedroom window, strange and triangular, inhuman. Broken down into bits and ferried inside each night to protect it from the dew. It needed to stay dry, she told me, if it would have any hope of catching when the time came. She never came to see her work once it was installed; had become superstitious about it a few years ago and would’ve been in a stramash if she’d known that this was where I was.
People were gathering on the rocks, settling in with their windbreakers, blankets, thermoses, their hair swept across their faces in the wind, but Leah wanted one last swim. She said she wanted to see the summer out properly, even though it was already well and truly gone. It was mid-autumn and Baltic out, but she didn’t care. We stripped down to our shirts and underwear, and hers had little red flowers printed on the ribbed cotton that were stretched into odd shapes by the pull of the elastic. Three boys ran past and whistled, guised with festival masks, calling out something that I never quite caught.
‘Try that again without a mask to hide behind, you fucking lavvy heads,’ Leah called, and we laughed, met eyes. The pass of some shared feeling between.
She spun and spun and wheeled out into the water, apparently unfazed by the chill despite the goosebumps that lifted on her thighs. Her shirt soaked up to her armpits, her blonde hair turned dark at its ends by the sea, frizzed at the crown by the salt. The slow silhouetting of her as everything started to dim. There were string lights curved around the rockpools, and though they had been on the whole time, their glow was only now apparent. Wills-o’-the-wisp, leading us out to water.
‘Let’s get away from all of these fucks,’ she said, the shine of water now up her neck.
I was only waist deep and a wave rolled up to my nipples, shot me through with cold. I wanted nothing more than to get out and back into my jacket, but I also wanted to be alone with her, so I agreed. We swam out to the pontoon and settled there to watch, sitting with the strange sensation of tilting concrete, unsteadiness. Shivering into each other, mouths brushing close to shoulders. Bare thigh to bare thigh, the sting of salt on fresh-shaved legs. I thought about kissing her but didn’t. She was small and forceful, scared me a little.
The sun was gone now, and the dark was broken only by the floodlights on the effigy, by people shining their wavering torches on the rocks. The effigy stood about five metres tall, vicious and serpentine, leaning into the cliffs. Some kind of sea witch. The floodlights lit her from below so she looked the way people do when they shine lights on their chins at campfires.
‘What’s she made of?’ Leah asked. ‘Like papier mâché or something?’
‘The frame’s just wood, but I don’t know about the casing,’ I said. ‘I think Mum was saying something about glue fumes.’
The effigy looked like she’d climbed up from the water – the tide coming in around the rocks, edging toward her feet, a threat to the floodlights – but I knew that she had climbed instead from my mother’s brain. This effigy was my kin.
A band started playing, forced through the amps to static, and there was a woman speaking in a low voice above the music. Words getting lost over the water.
‘What’s she saying?’ Leah said.
‘Fucked if I know.’
People were cheering, but it was impossible to know what about without hearing her speech in full. We got phrases like enter into the darkness and when the veil is at its thinnest. Words like release and death. Mother and dissolving. None of it made sense out of context. She talked of ancestors, of grandmothers and great-grandmothers and single-celled organisms from the sea. A wave crashed up against the rocks on the beach, and I could make out the dark shapes of people pulling their knees to their chests, their feet away from the spray.
I clocked out after the first few minutes and spent most of the time with my eyes instead on Leah, and at some point she turned and kissed me hard on the mouth. Said she was bored, that there was a party that weekend and we might as well practise. I could feel my heart in my throat, could feel the heat on my cheeks from the effigy, even though she was not yet lit. There was something rusted about Leah’s lips, like licking the underside of a boat. Split skin with its unsealed metallic sheen, strange exterior wetness. She gave me notes, corrected with her hands the mechanical movement of my jaw, and then it was over as quickly as it started, her attention back to the effigy, mine still on the feel of her, which lingered between my teeth. My mind turning the moment over, trying to understand what had happened and if it had even happened at all.
The music shifted, turned rhythmic to match the beat of waves. A man touched a light to the effigy’s skirting and held it for a moment, waited for it to catch. At first it seemed like it wouldn’t happen. Like Mum had made a mistake and built her from something that wasn’t flammable, or the damp really had got in through the night. But the man pulled away and a slow flame licked up the side of her. Gentle at first, but then all at once. Ripping up her back until she was engulfed. The flames illuminating her, revealing now the detail that I couldn’t see before. The way her hair curled upward as if lifted by water. The fins at the ends of her many snaking tails. The mussels and limpets clinging to her skin.
Part of her head collapsed inward.
People screamed, and it was hard to know if out of fear or elation.
I must have replayed it in my head ten times over on my way home. Her warm breath steaming against my skin, the sweet-salt taste of her. Her wet hair sticking to my cheek. Her: unwieldy, indelicate, perfect.
It might be why I didn’t notice first that Mum’s bedroom door was left open and that she wasn’t inside, that the whole house was dark as if she were asleep though her bed was empty. It took until I had used the loo, until I had brushed my teeth and run my fingertip back and forth across my lips several times in the mirror, until I had changed into pyjamas and was filling my cup with water at the kitchen sink, listening to the cool whine of the tap. But she was gone, and in my tight panic I looked through all the cupboards, pulled up all the sheets from her bed as if she might have been somehow hidden beneath. This was not, at its core, abnormal. She would disappear for a weekend on occasion, would cite my clinginess and her need for space, but she would always leave a note. This time, nothing. A pair of shoes was gone from the doorway. She didn’t take a coat, a bag, her toothbrush.