Marbles | by Natalie Baker

Mother wants the best for me. She always has, she always will. She keeps me safe, well fed and hydrated at all times. It can’t be easy for her taking care of me like this, as I lie here motionless, waiting for the day to chew me up and swallow me whole. Every morning she comes upstairs with her watering can and secateurs. She tends to me, prunes me and trims my worn-out corners before stitching me back together again. The dirt of me gets in deep beneath her fingernails and she sucks it out, bit by bit. She removes my thorns, snips my sharp edges and collects the dust of my skin in an ashtray, in one clean sweep. She files away at my nails, brushes my hair and flosses my teeth. I emerge, perfectly manicured and sanitary, ready to live again.

Sometimes she sings to me. She likes to do that as she opens the curtains to let the day in. Like a flood, it rushes into the room and settles on my surface. The dust particles illuminate in two seamless channels of light.  

     ‘Look at the sun dancing on your bones,’ she says. And together we watch it glitter and shine for hours.

When I’m parched she waters me. Fills me up. If her mind is elsewhere, absent and far away from the room, she just keeps on watering until I’m drowning in it. Almost. Then I choke. I cough and splutter and gag. She pulls me in tight and her salty tears trickle down the side of my face. They continue to run until they gather like pools in the crevices of my body. But this is rare. Don’t think she forgets me. This is not a matter of negligence; she would never abandon me. ‘You, my flower, you are all that matters.’

I’ve been here for weeks now. I couldn’t tell you the exact number of days. Hard to be so accurate when all you do is lie all day long in a semi-conscious state, horizontal and barely there. It’s now the dog days of summer, I know that much, and she doesn’t want to let me go. Her long, fluid limbs fold around my bones and she ties me up in a perfect fisherman’s knot. I’m kept here under her watchful eye. The mother’s embrace: both nurturing and debilitating in equal measures. But she only wants the best for her daughter. Every day she brings me tea and crumpets with lashings of butter and marmalade. She slides in under the bed sheets and feeds me little mouthfuls of the springy, doughy bread. I chew. She assures me good, clean mastication will improve my digestion.

     ‘Your gut is your second brain,’ she says, ‘it’s a vital organ and it must be listened to. Ignore it and you make poor judgements in life and in love.’

The orange skin gets stuck between my teeth and when my tongue fails me, she picks the pieces out with her sharp nail. Her eagle eye settles on my mouth. Our mouths are the same: oval-shaped and thin-lipped with a splattering of freckles in the pinkish pigment. She tells me how alike we are as she folds my hair into long plaits. She only leaves when my plate has been licked clean. Her fingers press against my forehead to check my temperature and she places a fresh towel on the mattress under my bottom to soak up the juices. Then she whispers softly in my ear, ‘get some rest, flower,’ before vanishing for what seems like hours and hours.

I am here because I fell in love. It’s the kind of love that could only end in ruin. We wanted to live together, to runaway and never return to this concrete, characterless town. There was nothing keeping us here anymore. We were two perfect halves that made sense of the world together. Our bodies entwined, always, we became each other’s shadow: arms and legs and hands and feet always touching, kissing and rubbing. We were on the cusp of living happily ever after. Our bags were packed and ready to go. Then I found myself stuck in this room. My skin was pinned to the mattress and I couldn’t tear myself away. I tried to resist but it was too painful, then I panicked and wet the bed. It went through to the mattress and the urine smell hung in the stale air. I lay there in my own filth for a while. And after some time she came to me, perched on the edge of the bed and held my hands in her own.

     ‘I had to interfere,’ she said, ‘one day you’ll understand’.

I cannot blame her for this. I’m all she has. She wants to take good care of me. She wants to save me from a broken heart. But my heart is still whole. It won’t be shattered. It won’t be defeated. And no number of crumpets will stamp it out. I want to tell her this but I can’t find the words. And when I open my mouth there’s only silence. I scream at her, but nothing. Nothing but empty space and empty sound. All that remains is a hollow outer shell. My love, he is far from me now. My memory of him is fraying around the edges and I worry that soon it will turn to ash.

Have you ever experienced that restless explosion of light that sharpens the space around you? When all the minute details pull to focus and everything is brighter. Love at first sight. It was hiding around the corner, waiting like a silent leopard ready to pounce and consume its prey in one single serving. I was the prey and I was consumed. I imagined our colours merging to form a new brilliant colour that made all the other colours seem dull and obsolete. He wanted me all to himself and I was happy to melt with him.

     ‘Like dandelion snow,’ he said, ‘you’re a drifter. I’ll lose you if I’m not careful. I’ll lose you to the wind.’

How wrong he was. I wanted to cling on and never let go.

I thought I was incapable of love, of feeling anything more than a vague fondness for someone else. When I was a little girl, I formed bonds with inanimate things like tea towels and washing pegs. I did this to avoid confrontation; I couldn’t bear the sensation of touching another living skin. I developed an obsessive ritual involving a large collection of colourful marbles. Some were like tiny pea-sized spheres that could easily be ingested; others were as big as golf balls that would show up in random places around the house. I’d spend hours after school washing, drying and polishing the marbles one at a time. Sometimes I’d roll them along my cheek to feel the cold sensation pressing into me. They were like little jewels. They were my treasure, my loves, my pride and joy.

Recently, I’ve been waking up to find a glass of water and a saucer with four pills on my bedside table. Next to the water is a note that reads, “to mend a broken heart”. I’ve got to keep taking these pills otherwise I might fall into a deep, unbreakable slumber, like sleeping beauty. Only, I’m not sure a handsome prince will bring me back to life with a tender kiss. The pills are necessary for my recovery. If I want to come out of this unscathed, I have to take them all. It’s important to stay energised and to support the heart in it’s healing journey. She assures me that I’ll love another, but only when I’m ready, only when the time is right. ‘You must understand the pain of love,’ she says, ‘if you want to love and be loved again’. I’m not sure I do, I want to tell her. I’m not sure I want to.

She has a vast collection of medicine. There are two cupboards full of medicinal concoctions, some are homemade, and others are shop-bought. The first is for your typical doctor-prescribed medication. Here you have your Ibuprofens, anti-acid tablets and laxatives, and god knows what else. It’s well stocked. There’s something for every common ailment and condition. But the homeopathic cupboard is the most impressive. It’s a treasure chest; filled with curious-looking pills, tinctures, rescue remedies and lightly coloured liquids. I once found a jar of what looked suspiciously like cured meat, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask her what it was. To be honest, I didn’t really want to know what it was. In regular intervals throughout the day, she presents a cocktail of vitamins, minerals and supplements on a tray. They keep me nutritionally balanced and in good health. Sometimes, if I’m administered a high dosage, I experience this sudden euphoric rush that penetrates deep into my veins, entering my blood and bone marrow. Then, just moments later, I’m overwhelmed by an immediate sense of lethargy. Everything is numb. Everything is hazy. And I enter the most peaceful, unwavering sleep. I’m out like a light. Gone for hours. Who knows when I’ll return.

On our first date together we went foraging at dusk in the forest. It was a typical summer’s evening and the sky was clear and bright as ever. No sign of moonlight. The smoke from the burnt oak made my eyes weep so he leaned in and kissed them dry. That was the moment I fell. He masterfully recalled all sorts of information about edible plants because his dad was a certified herbalist. He recited their Latin names like Vaccinium myrtillus for bilberry and Taraxum officinale for dandelion. This impressed me so I kissed him back. I wondered how many other girls he’d seduced this way. I wondered how many other girls he’d taken to this wild forest at night. His number, I imagined, was impressive: twenty at the very least.

     ‘Tell me more,’ I said, ‘what else do you know?’

We ate sandwiches in the forest, as it was beginning to go dark. He told me about his nomadic childhood, seducing me with his foreign tongue. We had the ham and sauerkraut on pumpernickel bread that his mother had made. I took a bite but immediately spat it out. At first I thought I’d offended him, but we laughed about it later. His breath was sour from the pickled cabbage but there was something mildly alluring about this. I’ve always found strong and heady smells seductive. Like petrol or musk or tobacco. I have dreams of kissing a tobacconist and chewing on his tobacco tongue all day long. But do tobacconists even smoke? I don’t know.

It happened on our second date in the rapeseed field about ten kilometres outside of town. I know this and my mum knows this too, because I stained my knickers red and yellow and she found them later that evening. I rolled them up in a tight ball and stuffed them at the very bottom of the laundry basket when I got home. The yellow juices from the rape flower rubbed off on some of her favourite cotton dresses, so I had to confess. She didn’t talk to me for two weeks after that, but it was worth it, because, as I said before, it was for love. True love. This time he smelt of warm day-old milk that had been left to ferment in the sun. But something had changed. He was softer, vulnerable, even. He had these lumberjack hands with flaccid fingers that didn’t know what was what. They fumbled about not knowing where to go or what to do with me. Which bits to press, stroke, tickle and stab. So I took them firmly in mine and we worked together. At first, there was something mechanical about every movement and it was a while before he fully relaxed. After some minutes had passed, I felt him stiffen against my thigh. He lay me down on the moth-eaten hessian rug and examined every bit; his tongue circled my breasts and worked its way down to my groin. He played my parts with such eager determination, working out my nuts and bolts, the hard and soft edges. The sun beat down on our bare skins and charred our backs as we wriggled and writhed in the heat of it all. I imagined bathing in a tub of cold marbles, an explosion of colour – the spheres filling me up and keeping me safe and whole. I closed my eyes tight to block out the light, and for the first time, I felt tenderness towards another living thing.

The light outside comes in through the curtains at dawn. That’s when I know the world is waking. That I’m alive still. It moves and creates shadows across the room. The shadows talk, they dance and play with each other like excitable children. She tells them they must be quiet. They must behave. I need to rest. She lifts my arms up above my head and washes my pits with a warm damp flannel. It smells of patchouli. She moves the razorblade in downward strokes. Once, twice, three times. Sometimes she goes in a little deeper and draws blood. As she dips the blade into the bowl of water and splashes it around, I see the colour change to red and the sting stays with me for hours. Then she scrubs hard to get me clean and the soap dries on the surface of my broken skin, forming a protective crust. She feeds me natural yogurt, one spoonful at a time, to keep my cracked tongue moist. Then she gets in between the sheets and wraps herself around me, pulling me closer until I’m the smallest I can be.

     ‘Stay strong, darling girl,’ she says, before kissing my shoulder.

The box of marbles sit on my solid oak bookshelf, gathering dust. Inanimate objects. They are my friends. I will continue to take my pills. My multivitamins, nutritional supplements and rescue remedies, because, at this stage, I’ll take anything that promises to rescue. I will continue to eat crumpets with orange marmalade and watch the sunlight dance across my belly. And at night, when all that’s heard is the gentle humming of the trains passing by, my mother will softly stroke my hair and rock me to sleep.

 


 

Natalie Baker is a London-based freelance writer and editor. Her poems and fiction have been featured in Synaesthesia Magazine and The Bacon Review, and she regularly contributes to the Bloody Good Period blog. Find her on Twitter @NataBake