I am seeking small mercies, this word that pushes the breath out slowly and pulls at the corners of your mouth like stay or sleep. When I imagine my mother through the eyes of the policeman who brought her into the station on a Friday afternoon, I invent small mercies between them. I think of her sitting in silence in the backseat of his cruiser, the danger of the whole thing bringing her back for just a moment like a light turning on inside a house. I picture the policeman noticing this as he glances at his rearview mirror. I imagine him seeing her briefly the way I used to, the way she looked across the kitchen table. I invent what he does next. After turning his attention back toward the road, he rolls down his window so there’s something of a breeze that pulls at their clothes, taking away the smell of sweat and leather. Small mercies.
From the hallway of the police station there is a call between my mother and my grandmother. The conversation is brief, the bubble of each word a static pop against the speaker, especially the word please which is answered with silence followed by a question and then, of course, she can’t bring her home. No, she says, and not now. Not after the last time. Other promises have been made and those were broken and every other time they have collapsed against each other, one after the other. When they hang up, I wonder if my grandmother stands without knowing why and opens a window over the kitchen table, smooths the corner of a napkin and sits back down holding the phone in her fist. The television might play a commercial, its jingle bringing her back into the chair and the room, to the sound of traffic outside and the thump of bass.
Time is another kind of mercy – a week, a month, a year. Bones mend, bruises turn yellow and then fade, grief dislodges from the body and stops buzzing in your ears. It happens slowly, this lifting of grief. I take two buses home from work. We go through Cambridge, over the Charles River and past the railway tracks. It is July and early enough in the season that we move without the hurry of September. The day is mild. Honeysuckle grows on the fence down the street and the air isn’t damp like the air of the river valley back home. There is no heaviness in the breeze, nothing that searches for the breath and softens the lungs. I note the absence of something else: the weight of heavy sorrow I used to carry in my knees and across both shoulders. It does not fold over the body invisibly like it used to. When I heard about the call, I had thought okay, she will eat in jail, they will give her food and that was it. That was everything.
The bus lurches to a stop and I walk uphill, past the yard with the bathtub Mary, the small, white dog, the house with six children whose things spill out into the yard; bikes overturned, little plastic houses faded from the sun. There is mercy in the space between this street and home, the city of careful words and sticky air. There is mercy in the miles, in the acres to the right of me that stretch out in wheat fields and over rounded hilltops of oak, maple, pine. It is easy to remember only the good things; perfect afternoons with the back door open, the symphony of cicadas that called to the evening, an old ache for all of it that used to sit in the belly. This lifts and fades, too. It happens while I am doing the dishes, while I reach for the soap and stand barefoot in front of the sink.
There was a summer I spent working in a nursery beside my mother. I watered the perennials in a back parking lot, row after row, while she potted annuals in 4th of July colors, cleared the spaces underneath the leaves of wilted petals, answered the phone, swept the floors, answered questions about each herb, succulent, packet of seeds. We would meet on the side of the building for lunch, spreading napkins over our thighs. In the evenings after work she would sit outside, a bottle of Rolling Rock in her right hand, its label peeling at the corners. I see her back and the halo of her hair. From where I sat in the kitchen it did not look like anything was amiss. There were no alarms, sirens, policeman with small mercies. There was no flood or warning. There was only the sound of children playing in the alleyway, the neighbor mowing his lawn.
This morning I notice two sunflowers growing outside my window, one right next to the other. Every day they are just a little but taller, their leaves wider and more full. How good, this living synonym. I contemplate filling the empty space left by the sorrow and the ache for home. I dream of giving my body over to the growth of possible things. It would feel better, would it not? to become secondary in my own story, to bow into another one. Look at this leaf, the tree, this blade of grass I might say to the one who comes. How life would unfurl again, grow wide with meaning, expand and contract in all the more necessary ways. Mercy in exuviation and patience and in what blooms.
I want to ask my ancestors if they believe in the lineage. I want to ask only the well ones, the ones that can’t haunt me, but I do not know of any. Perhaps my great-great grandfather’s family in Havana. Antonio Lopez. He was not well, but his mother could have been or an aunt or a sister. He was only Antonio who left. Antonio who made daughters. Antonio who is unknown. I trace his legacy, the harms passed down and so I turn to the others. I try picturing his mother kneeling as she might have with her hands across her knees, rum on the altar, a small bed in the corner. One afternoon I ask her about the mercy of change and the changing of stories. I have never talked to ghosts, but I make an offer. If it is meant to be it will be. I watch the sunflowers move out the window, how they bend slowly and with care.
When my mother had me she was twenty-two. She was almost an art teacher, had oil paints stored in the corner; Cadmium Red, Prussian Blue, Cayne’s Grey.
I look for the names of saints. There is Gemma, Francis, Brigid, but I want a name that means free, free in the way the ocean feels, buoyant and with purpose and movement. I want the name to mean you can go away if you need to or a name that means I know you are made from me, but not for me. Never for me, just of me. I will tell them this if they come. I want to give them the chance to be the first well one from a long line of things that have been broken or are breaking. This would be a small mercy, to live without the weight of generations.
Maya Bailey-Clark was born in St. Louis, Missouri and now lives and writes in Boston where she obtained a BA in English at Simmons College. She is the recent winner of their George W. Nitchie Award for Creative Writing and has been published in Voices & Visions, Sidelines, The MaBooks, Burner Magazine, and Salamander Magazine. Connect with her online and on Instagram: @mayawren