I wonder whether she foresaw me as I have witnessed her, the progenitor of our curse, wearing white and weaving with arthritic hands and bone needles and one, red thread. Her eyes wide and her purple veins webbing under open pores and into the clutched crevices of her nostrils, I have seen her smiling over us, laughing, weaving, clucking. This is the image that I have of her.
I wonder, too, what face she must have put on to come to the earth, to catch a husband. What muted colors. But then I know that she wore white tulle and married and wept over her husband's grave and made macramé slings for their one child. Clothos carding wool in the summertime.
And then in the night she again ascended and pressed her twin sisters to her flaccid breast and made a mockery of me when she wove my family history red into her tapestry and cackled. I, nee Mary, of my mother Marilyn, of her mother Maribel, of her mother Dolores. Reckless Dolores — my great grandmother — who carried her seven sadnesses and this matrilineal curse to me.
She fell in love with a pink man — a grandson of that funny Fate Clothos. A blistered man — a man too long under the sun, wet with sweat and the weepings of his peeling skin. He would share no words and no silences with my great grandmother in his waking life and was known to her only on warm nights when he opened windows and she crept in unknown to him, an unexpected and unwelcome visitor. She, skeletal with burnt hair courtesy of a failed curling iron, could not have expected the attentions of even an afflicted man, and so she was satisfied enough when he sighed his sleepy acquiescence and she could say, "No, please. Call me Dolores."
The night that she brought this curse on us was too warm — she had forgone her stockings and he slept naked. She bent over him as if to kiss the blistered puckers in his flesh. He moved in his sleep, and she sat down instead.
His eyelids undulated. His hand rose and grasped at the moist air and he mumbled.
My great grandmother plucked his hand from the air and fingered his split knuckles, his cracked calluses. "No, please. Call me Dolores." He quieted and his hand became heavy in hers.
She pressed her tongue to the flat whorl of his thumbprint and sucked his salty digit, teasing it with her teeth. A red thread which he wore like a ring and which bound the wrinkles of his thumb like a suture caught on her canine tooth. She pulled it free and swallowed it.
He woke with a sub vocal grunt.
She paused, caught, and her throat throbbed hot.
"That does not go there," he said.
Her heart in her chest beat against her ribs and bruised them.
He slid his thumb free from her mouth and the slick of her saliva followed it. He smeared it across the hem of her dress and scowled.
"I can explain," she said.
He flexed his naked thumb and hummed an angry lullaby. He had become a tongue-tied man in the absence of that thread, only given voice by the crumplings of his oily skin and the melody in his throat. My great grandmother watched him and waited and writhed beneath his gaze.
"I've loved you," she said. She opened her hands to him and gestured to her heart.
He snorted and pressed his gentle fist to her face, pushing her from his bed. He pushed her until she stood against the bare wall and she could see the thick sinews of his naked thighs.
"I do love you," she said.
"I don't even know you," he replied. He left her there against the wall and then came back with shears. "You be quiet and you don't tell," he said. He cut off her clothes and her curls and shoved her again.
And Clothos, bored with lazy lines and segmented diagonals wove into our story the tragedy of Dolores, sleepless Dolores, who would never marry. And Clothos — full–knowing — grinned.
My great grandmother missed her next period.
My grandmother was called Maribel and her hair was knotted like Spanish moss, blown onto her bony skull by the hot–breathed kisses of her mother. Her hair was unruly and red; it took the moisture out of the air and curled up against the sweaty nubs of her seven, brittle vertebrae.
"What sort of hair is that?"
My grandmother laughed and wove her wet curls with her fingers.
"What sort of hair is that for a girl with such a good name? Maribel. A name like yours."
"Dolores. Dough–low. Dolorosa!" A curl wouldn't take. She pinned it in. "Why did they name you that, Mama?"
"For my troubles. For my sadness. Is that any sort of hair to have?" My great grandmother had grown too old. She had nearly no hair — only copper tufts between scabs and old scars. She sought out the hirsute spaces like a nervous phrenologist and plucked them. "You should cut that shit off."
"Always with that mouth."
"You'll know what I mean."
"Don't threaten me with scissors."
"You'll be full of fire."
"No." She looked right into her mother's sleepless eye. "There are no firebugs. Not in your hair; not in your bed; not in your mouth." She pinned another curl. "Named for your troubles. What sort of girl were you?"
"The sort of girl who didn't listen to warnings."
My grandmother only laughed but Clothos took that cue and the firebugs crept into her hair the night that her firstborn woke in her womb. She held him in until strapped to a hospital bed and screaming. And my grandmother cried out at the nurse who forced open her legs, razored her pelvis, checked her dilation, and at the obstetrician who cut into her, saying, "This is too quick. Did you already give her the morphine? The scopolamine? She'll bleed out." And then the remembered embarrassment of staining the sterile sheets further with her afterbirth.
She was sweat–sodden and shaking when they brought her the pink baby. She put a heavy breast into his mewling mouth but the nurse pried it out and took the baby away. She slept. She woke. She felt cold beneath the thin linens and lifting them up, discovered that she was naked. Her body was odd, still with its pre–birth bloat but sagging. She could not see her underbelly. She took a compact mirror from her purse — brought to make herself look lovely for her six–week lay–in — and looked. Her skin was stretched and webbed and puckered above her pelvis like a tucked cloth.
There was blood on the bed beneath her. She angled the compact at her cut–up cunt. It throbbed and she thought, Still? She reached down and pulled the thing taut against her pubis bone, inspected its stubbled edges and her swollen, purple perineum, darned with an obstetrician's needle and red thread. It wept red, that line of new motherhood.
She touched it.
The heat came up out of her throat. The firebugs that had perturbed the sleep of her mother had come alive in her own mossy hair.
She tore at a curl and then remembered her mother's balding ugliness.
She pressed the bed sheets to her breasts and came off of the bed belly first. She landed on her knees and grasped at the floor and half–prepared excuses. I need an ice–pack to put there; I ache. Or: I need a round pillow for the pressure; I ache. She stumbled up on milk legs, which wobbled and burned beneath her so that the stitches that kept her together — and the one that would please her husband — pulled. She winced, but went on.
The drawers were packed with gauze, the counter–tops with cotton balls.
She opened her mouth and the firebugs came out of it and ate on her face and clung to her curls. She cut off her cries and stepped into the hallway on unbending feet.
She found the scalpel at a nurse's station. Its blade was small and she did not know whether it was dirty or clean. I do not think that she cared. She held it up and cut off her curls.
The nurses caught her kneeling among them but not touching them — she was too wary of the heat they held. The bed sheets — forgotten — were bunched about her bruised knees. A baby cried and her breasts wept.
She said to the nurses, "I need an ice-pack to put there. And I want to see my baby."
Clothos has sutured shut our mouths by any means and has sheared short our lives. We are brief. We have not spoken. Our tongues in French knots, we have whispered only to each other. But I will whisper to you, so that you will know before that Fate stitches red hair to my head, a firebug into my throat, and I am compelled to silence.
My grandmother's baby died in a house fire. He and his red hair were burnt up in spite of the asbestos that filled his bedroom walls. He left my grandmother only a femur bone, which she wrapped in a red ribbon and buried beneath a pecan tree. Perhaps Clothos took pity and a part of our curse died with him. My mother was born a blonde.
I was born with it in my mouth. Or else, I suckled it free from my mother's breast: a red heartstring as thick as a vein pulled from the pouring wound in my mother's nipple where I bit her. It tumbled into my open throat and knotted itself to an eosinophilic cyst, yellow–white and throbbing behind the hot hollow of my collarbone.
Pulling words from my mouth is like pulling twine up through my twisted throat; I feel a knot catch on the root of my tongue and I feel it against that hard cyst. I want to vomit. I taste the bile and the acid that has seeped into this bitter string. I clench my teeth and gag, but I still pull that twine, hating every word that I say. I will spit syllables onto the carpet, ruin the upholstery, and afterwards I will grin, red fibers caught between my teeth. Hello, I'll say, and I'll wipe my sleeve along my jaw, May I have a kerchief, please?
This cyst and this string are inherited things. I suspect that my mother had them, too: I learned at least some of our lore on her lap and there was a hole in her throat where she must have tried to smoke out the cyst.
I found that first cigarette in her cedar chest, which my father still kept — even after she died, even after he remarried. I was twenty–three. It was buried between some spoons that she had bent into open–ended bracelets. It was half–smoked — a Marlboro, I guessed. It had a golden filter. A memento mori, too: my father had penciled his marriage proposal in block capitals: "Marry me tomorr—"
I wonder when she noticed. I do know that she dropped it when she did. She burned a hole through the fabric of her white dress and it scarred her round knee. She kissed my father and she did marry him, unwashed and happy, still in that same dress.
The cigarette smelled of her at one crumpled end and tasted of her at its filter. Pregnant, I put it in my mouth and sucked it like a straw, remembering her and her hot breath on my forehead. I lit the thing and smoked it, in spite of its staleness. It made my breath yellow. I coughed and my fingers curled around my own throat and my hair became blonde, then red.
My father called to me from another room. "Mary?" he said.
"I'm coming," I said, and I coughed.
I stubbed the cigarette on my knee, quenched it as my mother had, and turned around to see my mother's pink ghost, temporarily freed from the tutelage of Clothos. Her fingers were plump from the stinging of spindles and red where she had reacted to cheap, nickel needles. "You are privileged," she said.
I coughed again and my throat throbbed, as if filled with burrowing insects.
"A swallowed spool tells you all of our stories."
"No," I said.
She faded, as did the pain in my knee.
I am a moon–faced woman, weighty and thick and puffed by two doses daily of prednisone — and I disagree. I am not privileged, not lucky. I am cursed.
I threaten nothing with scissors.
My daughter — Gretchen — coughs when she eats and I have seen the russet strands buried in her brown when I brush her hair. She darts like a needle through my hallways and says, "That does not go there!" So she has inherited this too, then.
These were her first words and they did not come tentatively.
She was eighteen months old — already almost too old — and I had taken her from our cloistered home for a teddy–bear picnic, she in her sling and sandwiches in a basket that my mother wove. I had said, "Do you want me to tell you the story about Goldilocks?"
She pressed a curl into her nostril and snorted.
"What do we learn from that story?"
She pulled the curl out and put it in her mouth.
Gretchen is a beautiful being. Her blunt jaw mirrors my own but is poised above pert shoulders and her curls cover her cheeks when she laughs open–mouthed at my awful jokes. And her fingers are so slim.
I took her on the grown–over jeep trails that my own mother had traveled. Gretchen babbled as we bounced in our seats and I listened for the words that were not there, that seemed never to come from her pink mouth.
I parked where what road there was ran out. Gretchen quieted and shook her head back and forth while her teddy–bear stared at me from its wicker seat. I opened my door and stepped out into the park.
I laid a blanket over the yellow heads of dandelions and took Gretchen from her car seat. She clung to me as we walked. She did not want to see the flowers, the leaves of aspen trees; she hid her head in the curve of my breast and whimpered.
"Honey, Honey," I said.
I bounced her and then set her on the blanket, smiling when she would not. She widened her eyes and patted my cheek with a small hand.
"What is it?" I said.
She winced and I suddenly heaved. I pushed a fist to my lips and my mouth burnt and my fingers fell away and vomit fell in smooth sheets like spun flax from my gaping mouth. The images of my foremothers came to me: their cut hair, their sutures, their burns. Gretchen cried out — said, "Ma!" — and I could not see her. I saw only fragments of my foremothers.
I moved my own fingers to my mouth and I found it — a red thread. I pulled it and heaved until empty. I plucked the string from my teeth. Gretchen kicked me and I dropped it into the dirt. She said, "That does not go there!"
I wiped my hand on my pants.
"That does not go there," she said again.
I looked into the wet dirt and wondered what suture Clothos had tried to impose upon me. "I can explain," I whispered. I hooked my hands beneath her arms and I held her up to look into her worried face.
But she would not speak again. I set her down and began to shake as she fisted my calf and grunted.
"Gretchen," I said.
She looked up at me.
I stopped and swallowed. Dolores named for her seven sadnesses but Gretchen marks only the fifth generation of our cursed family line. I choked down a sob and opened my hands to her.
She shook her head at me.
"How long have you been able to talk?" I said. My voice was still raw and broken.
Gretchen pouted. A red bulb protruded from the corner of her mouth — a dead chigger on her lip. I brushed it off with my thumb and contorted her face so that I would be able to see if any other firebug had crept from her mouth or into her hair.
Her mouth was empty, her hair clean and neat. I picked her off of the ground and carried her back to the car.