BY GAIL ARONSON
The mother was immaculate, and after her father died, she immaculately birthed armies. All of them fully grown and uniformed and holding their weapons at the ready, only tiny.
The mother isn’t immaculate anymore, though once you’ve immaculately accomplished something perhaps you get to stay immaculate forever. The army men don’t grow old but the mother does.
She birthed them in a Southern town – home to a military base, the slugged drone of helicopters ever-hovering overheard. She has always considered it useful to think about something peaceful during a painful experience: at the funeral she thought about wide open sky – during the service she could hear those helicopters the whole time – and when she was spread stilled and steady on that hospital bed she thought, ocean. She doesn’t remember pain, though she knows she must have felt it. The feelings that hurt most remained the most abstract to the mother, floating in her consciousness just as liquid, which is what she does remember – all of that turning and rearranging inside for what was to come out.
And when they were born, they marched in straight lines, black ants clothed head to toe in fabrics the colors of mud and trees just like the corners of her father’s house, where she still lives – the dated, petal-pink bathroom tile cracked to crumbs, earthy dark pupils of what were once diamonds between them. Now men marched holding rifles on their shoulders, trailing the hospital hallways. The mother’s pain growled inside of her, though she did not need to push so much as she needed to inhale, exhale, wait.
The mother had known army men before, though she didn’t know how they came from her. The mother was young, is young and less young, less young now, and now.
The mother had been secretly dating a waitress at a Chili’s for three months before the births began, secretly because the waitress didn’t want to tell her parents about them. The mother had ordered chips during happy hour and sipped a bright blue virgin margarita every Tuesday, just to talk to the waitress. As the weeks went on, the waitress began to talk about boys she met on the internet, went on walks with boys through the park. The mother was alone briefly then, until armies came.
The mother was pure as snow, though it never snowed in her town. The mother and the waitress had never even kissed – they just drank virgin blue margaritas together and stared into each other’s eyes and the mother thought about the waitress’s crimson-glossed lips like she did about water and pain and clouds – something far away she could feel only as a stir down low in her stomach.
The nurses stood in the hallways, cursing and crossing their hands over their chests, but otherwise the hospital continued to function as usual. Hospital machines must stay running, must never stop. For the months the mother made it to her ninth grade homeroom on time and drank virgin margaritas, the hospital moved across the street, but slowly. First she watched the scaffolding reaching incrementally higher with each passing week, and when it finally moved its patients it happened at once. She thought about all those people connected to their machines, about what happens when an entire hospital shuts down at once and there isn’t a building across the street. The now empty lot became a place for dirt ditches where the ant-sized army men hid and stalked and waited to defend, the noises they made quiet and ignorable as the bugs.
The military men followed the mother home. The ones that marched to the dirt lot across the street were unaccounted for, as many many were unaccounted for – how could the nurses be expected to keep track, to hold them in beds as regular human children. What else could they do but let them free.
All the helicopter dust in the air made the old houses feel forever forgotten, consumed in exhaust. The mother went home to hers, followed by the military men. The men filled the forgotten crevices of the house, went toward the walls in single-file lines, swirled themselves down the drain yelling gutturally from their chests though it came out subdued as light bulb fuzz, barely decipherable over the refrigerator hum. The mother couldn’t see their faces at first, just black dots, black dots, openings of their mouths unanimated as slivers of light hitting cracks of sidewalk pavement.
The men are not red the way that fire ants are red, but they are on fire, an anger too palpable to calm or comfort or understand, until the mother gets them alone. She files through her father’s dresser drawers, cluttered with old pornography magazines and NRA membership badges, a dated picture of her mother among them – hair crimped and teased, a blond blue-eyed beauty as her father would say, the mother does not resemble at all. Her father had never remarried but invited strange women home for dinner on a regular basis. Did the mother want to meet Marie? No, she did not. When the mother went to her room at night, she could hear them talk about her. She turned out homely her father said. If we have our own let’s hope they take after their mother. Laughter. So many mothers, and the mother is a mother, too, but only to the military men.
In the drawers now, among memories of a father she barely knew, march military men. They shoot at the glossed pages, shredding them into sections that glint just like the waitress’s lips. The military men never attack the mother, but they also refuse to acknowledge her and the mother feels hurt. She initially thought they were inhuman, a manifestation from deep inside her spirit, men that serve no purpose but to try to kill, to fail and live on in the world’s corners. She feels a little bad for them in this way, for they would never succeed, and they would keep trying, keep marching.
The mother wonders what these men desire, about their motivations to march. She asks and only hears hums, but this night she stands before the drawer and edges her ear so close that one military man crawls inside. She is suddenly not afraid of them, just wants to know how they came from her, how they’re a part of her. It is here that the military man yells as loud as he can, and it is audible, the very faintest get us out of here. please don’t report me to base. The mother assures him that she wouldn’t do such a thing. He marches away. None of the other military men will come near her and she sometimes thinks about their barely noticeable differences and how they might have developed through infanthood, and if she had a regular non-immaculate life of infants and men if she could have raised them right instead of observing them from a distance, always in need of a fight.
The mother sees full-size military men every day, though really, they are only boys. She works behind the counter of a uniform supply store, sewing individual names on badges. When someone comes up to the counter, it’s always a boy or a girl her age, or a little older, never someone ready to fight but a child ready to leave the corners of their towns. She thinks about terrain when she sees the most expensive uniform spun of deep green thread to blend into trees, has sewn only one badge to its inside chest. She has sewn badges on dolls, sold play knives for toddlers when the main line is too long, a shelf not just for soldiers, for the entire family. The mother knows always there could be might be a war, that a war is always in the making and that her own family moved away to get here, to reach a place where she could sew at a counter for the military children.
The military men never reproduce – they either disappear into the drains and the cracks or kill each other, though their bullets cannot hurt anyone but themselves. The mother could not understand how there could be so many military men yet only one of her, so many men around her but no one to talk to. Though they couldn’t talk to her, sometimes the military men helped her, carried plates to her spot at the table, switched on the television to her favorite station. As she grows old she is especially grateful for the military men.
When a mother is immaculate, her desires are invisible. When a mother is immaculate, she has never had a single one.
At night, the mother dreams of wearing crisp white and walking on a forest floor, soaking sunrays into her skin, but the mother’s skin is rubbery and burnt now – she is no longer a teenager but she might still be immaculate. Since to be immaculate means to be clean, and to be alone, the mother stays this way this is her way her destiny she knows, so she scrubs the house clean except for the military men. She scrubs the sink, wipes the counters, sweeps the floors.
All the mother needs to do at night is set out one bowl of steaming pasta across from her own, and the men come in lines less single file than they used to, sit and hold pieces of pasta between their tiny fingers, lick liquid droplets vigorously with their hands cupped. One bowl is enough for everyone, except for the military men in the hospital debris; the mother can do nothing for those she has already lost, but imagines them fighting the ants and getting consumed and letting their skin adapt to the ways of worms in the thick heat and exhaust, the rusting dull of it all even after a storm passes through.
The years pass on this way, and the mother begins to notice sewing wounds, sees the tiniest military man-sized knicks in her skin. Others see her young teenage face in the gutter puddles, in their baked soufflés, though a mother so immaculate is invisible on a day-to-day basis. If she is worshipped it is from afar.
When the mother passes in the night, only the young, taut military men wake there with her. The military men group together with all their strength and edge themselves into the corners of the mother’s skin – behind her knees and elbows and the wrinkles on her palms and the sweet soft edges of her lips; they lift the mother and march her into the backyard, shoot their bullets into the sky which prick the birds as would the slightest tip of a pin, for they are nothing if not protectors. And this is where they came from.
Gail Aronson lives in Alabama. She is a fiction editor for Omnidawn Publishing, and her stories appear or are forthcoming in The Offing, Midwestern Gothic, Dream Pop, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere.
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