“Go now, Persephone, to your dark-robed mother, go, and feel kindly in your heart towards me:
be not so exceedingly cast down; for I shall be no unfitting husband for you among the deathless gods.”
—Hymn to Demeter, Homer
I went as far as I could before I got to the water, and then stopped. A lakeside town in winter. In this season the population dropped, the streets went to sleep. Once every ten years the temperature crept low enough for Lake Erie to freeze. A cold snap over the weekend left an American freighter trapped in the lake for days. They had to send the coast guard out to break up the ice, to clear the way for shipments of coal and grain.
I parked my car in the motel lot, at the far end where the pavement crumbled into gravel, and sat there with the door open, waiting. Waiting, but for what sign? Her face at a window? That murky feeling called maternal instinct—whatever that was—to guide my way? The feeling was nothing but oxytocin, a chemical lie seeping from the hypothalamus, poisoning the blood. The love drug. I closed the car door, kept my keys in my hand, buttoned my dark coat. When Cora had called me that morning, she told me she’d been staying here. Or the voice on the line had said she was Cora, but she didn’t sound the same. How long have you been living there, I asked, and Cora said, I don’t remember. Her voice sleepy, vague. How can you not remember, I wanted to ask, a girl who had kept a color-coded calendar, meticulous notes in her field journal, who once organized my spice cabinet alphabetically: allspice, anise, basil, bay leaf, bird’s eye chili. Now I could hear Hayes in the background, come on, let’s go, I’m ready.
Where are you going, I asked, but the line went dead.
You could feel the teeth of the breeze. The dark scratch of trees along the long white wrist of the sky. February weather. The month of ice and mud. Tomorrow would be Valentine’s Day. I read once of a place in Italy where lovers exchanged keys, tokens meant to unlock the heart. The lock and key motif seemed better suited to the story of the jailed martyr than the paper hearts, red roses, and candied gestures of affection swapped here. Saint Valentine brings the keys of roots, says a Slovenian proverb; the day marking the moment when the green things of spring would stretch and uncurl from their sleep in the earth and creep into bloom.
There didn’t seem to be any sign of that, now. You could see the grass dried dark as burnt hair and matted to the ground wherever the crusted snow had broken. Behind the two-story white building was the lake. It was the Meadows now. It used to be the Blue Haven, years ago, just off the highway. The motel had a motto: You’re only a stranger once.
Don’t never leave me, my daughter used to say, when she was three or four. She used to say things like that. She had questions I couldn’t answer. What happens if I’m not here, she asked, what happens if I’m nowhere?
What do you mean, nowhere?
Like if I’m lost, she said, leaving me with an uneasy feeling even as I reassured her, no, no, that won’t happen, ever, the little lies we whisper to children. Do we do more damage that way, down the road? Did I leave Cora unprepared? Should I have taken her by the hand, walked her through the shadows, instead of pretending there was only sunshine? Too late, now, and at nineteen, she had gone on without me. When she was a baby, she’d been allergic to peanut butter and the doctor told me to dose her with a small dab, every day, so that her tolerance could build up, so that one day she’d be immune. And now I wondered if pain should be prescribed the same way.
When she was young, she slept with me at night, her face pressed so close to mine that some mornings there was a faint lashing of mascara on her cheek. I remember her picking things in the garden, even in the winter, the flowers dry and dead, petals sticking to her mittens. Her favorite toy was her medical kit; a pretend blood pressure cuff, a spring-loaded syringe, a plastic stethoscope she wore round her neck. Hello, my heart, she’d say, as she listened. She could have been a doctor. She could have been anything.
What dreams we have for our children; how aggrieved we are when they dare deviate.
She was nineteen when she disappeared, a biology student in her second year. Her heart belonged to herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, a knowledge of creeping animals. Her bedroom was a library, full of scientific journals. Bibliotheca Herpetologica, Copeia, and Chelonian Conservation and Biology: International Journal of Turtle and Tortoise Research. Labelled illustrations of snake skeletons on the walls, and loose articles torn from newspapers and magazines tucked in the frame of her mirror, pressed between dusty encyclopaedias. Notes for her own paper she was writing, An Examination of the Maternal Instinct in Snakes.
I thought they laid their eggs and left them, I said.
Cora shook her head no, no, that’s only some species. Anyway, first you have to consider your conception of maternal love, she said. The act of nest building itself is a gesture of love. And incubation. Timber rattlesnakes have shown the ability to recognize their siblings. And there have been observations made of the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake wrapping their bodies around their neonates to guard them from danger.
She felt called to the field of ecology, called to the rescue of her first, true love, the Massasauga rattlesnake. Misunderstood, she told me, abused, killed from fear, sadly listed as a Species at Risk in Ontario. There were two main populations—the Great Lakes and Saint Laurence population threatened, but ours—the Carolinian population—was considered more gravely endangered. The only venomous snake in Ontario. Only known to bite in self-defense, Cora said, which was understandable, her heart susceptible to all maligned creatures. A cat-like pupil, a sturdy body, equipped with a cytotoxic venom. Known by other names—black snapper, muck rattler, swamp rattlesnake. Of all the creatures, Cora chose to devote herself to this one, to the cause of restoring its populations along the shores of the Great Lakes.
After she was gone, my friends warned me. Who do you want to come home, Demetria, they asked. Are you only looking for the Cora you knew? Are you ready to accept who she might be now? As if like a bird with a fledgling returned to the nest I’d smell the predator on her feathers, refuse her absolutely. I knew the dead came back again in ways that could be hard to understand—them but not themselves, sad, silent, sick with longing. How revenants could return and fail to be recognized. But I was ready, I was waiting. I would know her anywhere, in any way. I would bring her home again.
She disappeared at the end of August. It was the Tecumseh Corn Festival. She’d asked me to pick her up at midnight. But when I went to the park, she was gone.
Her friends, a clueless crew in cutoffs and flower crowns, had no idea where she’d gone. They stood in a loose group, diaphanous as fish flies, texting, checking their phones. She was just here, they said. With Hayes.
Across the field, grass matted down with the grease and oil of carnival machinery, the Ferris wheel continued its giddy rotation. The August air was humid, sticky with the smell of cotton candy, heavy with butter. I imagined Cora somewhere with him, now, where I couldn’t go. Reaching up to kiss his numb lips.
They had met at a wedding at the art gallery, where I worked catering events. Sun Parlor Café was the name, taken from a 1912 book—Essex County, the Sun Parlor of Canada: Opportunities for Farming and Gardening. A place described by the Toronto Globe in 1900 as ‘Eden without the serpent,’ a description that stung Cora.
On the weekends, Cora worked as a banquet server while I supervised the kitchen. Dressed like the other girls in dark skirts and neat white blouses, buttoned up, her hair pulled back into a ponytail, her pierced ears shining in the candlelight. Back and forth she went, bringing small dishes of almond milk pudding, speckled with cinnamon and candied orange peel, the last course, biancomangiare, my mother called it. I made my own almond milk. Cora had helped me peel the almonds, measure out the orange blossom water.
I saw him standing there, a dark silhouette against the windows overlooking the Detroit River, the American skyline shining in the water. Suit jacket open over a white button-down shirt, pale pocket-square folded neatly, the gleam of a stainless steel watch on his wrist. His gaze on Cora as she crossed the dance floor carrying trays of glasses wadded with crushed napkins was of a hawk on a telephone wire watching a rabbit in the grass. Tracking her, barely moving himself. His dark hair combed back, a cool mouth filled with perfect teeth, beneficiary of expensive orthodontia. Everything about him precise and clean.
I waited till Cora had gone up the stairs, to serve drinks and collect empty bottles, amongst the guests wandering the gallery halls, gazing at paintings, dancing close to the stars. At the weddings held here, you could float between the floors, sipping champagne, studying the landscapes. Can I help you? I asked him. Standing close enough to feel the hot scotch on his breath. I realized suddenly I had seen him here before, two weeks ago, at a party for a yacht club. He’d been wearing a maroon suit jacket, a sky blue pocket square, bordered in the same shade as the jacket, like it had been dipped in claret, or blood. His dark hair shaved short at the sides, then brushed back at the top. I looked at him and knew he had returned for Cora. That he wasn’t a guest at this wedding.
I need her, he said.
You heard me, he murmured.
Go to hell.
He looked up at me, blue eyes under a sweep of long lashes. His half-moon smile, the waxing crescent of his teeth. Where do you think I came from, mama, he whispered, leaning in close enough for me to feel his heat against my cheek. I’ll go. But I’m waiting for her.
The first time Hayes came to dinner was also the last time. We spent the afternoon before his arrival baking a cake. Lemon chiffon, yellow curlicues of rind grated over vanilla frosting. The recipe asked for seven eggs, separated. Cora had whisked the yolks in a blue bowl, lemon stuck to her fingers. The doorbell rang and she looked at me, but I couldn’t translate the expression on her face. She had been restless all day. Her dark hair was in a braided crown, done this morning in anticipation of tonight’s dinner; it was coming loose now, long strands unweaving themselves. Her eye-makeup smoky, gold at the edges. Matte lipstick so dark it was almost purple. She had pierced her ears over and over through her early teenage years—three rhinestones along the side in each lobe, a slim silver hoop through the curve of cartilage at the top. Now her piercings glittered—small fixed points of light—like constellations in the night sky.
Aren’t you going to answer the door, I asked.
No, no, you do it, she said, straightening her skirt, twisting her bracelet round her wrist, a gold bangle, raw amethyst.
When I opened the door Hayes stood there on the other side, smiling. Welcome, I said, and his smile sharpened at the edges like he sensed he wasn’t. Cora had implored me, though, days after she met him at the wedding, to try. To get to know him, and so here he was, holding a bottle of red wine in one hand, a bouquet of roses and violets and crocuses, with their open yellow throats.
Thank you for having me, he said as he stepped in, his gaze already searching for her, but Cora had disappeared into the kitchen. I hoped she would stay there. He removed his dark overcoat. The glint of his stainless steel Swiss watch, numberless—just a small dark face, two silver hands. The scent of his cologne, cardamom milk and cypress trees.
We took our places at the table, the flowers between us in a vase my own mother had brought from Italy, painted with coiling red foliage, the old glaze flaking. He uncorked the bottle of wine and poured three glasses. I served the first course, eggplant caponata, the black olives shining like little eyes. At first we ate in silence, besides Hayes murmuring my compliments, Demetria, this is even better than the food at the wedding. I couldn’t bring myself to thank him, so I gave a cursory nod, catching Cora’s reproachful gaze.
I served the insalata di frutti di mare, listening to Cora and Hayes begin to converse, the first tentative exchange of words. Fruit of the sea, if my inadequate Italian serves me correct, he said, and she smiled, nodded yes, yes. She explained the salad, the spices required: lemon juice, bay leaves, oregano, parsley. How she had gone to La Stella on Erie Street to get the best octopus, the shrimp, and the squid. How she wanted dry-packed scallops, not the ones that had been soaking in brine, and he said she should show him, she should bring him one day, because to him all deep sea suckered things looked the same; he loved how she didn’t squirm.
You know about me, Cora said, but I don’t know about you, and Hayes smiled, shrugged, what is there to know? He had three sisters and two brothers, but now he was the estranged son of a wealthy family. He had been cut off from the family business, Marram Brothers Funeral Homes, with locations throughout Essex County. He shrugged, smiled into his wine, why should he care? Who wanted to be king of the dead, anyway? I am the unseen one, he said, as if he had knowledge of noble things, but no good use to put it to, and Cora nodded, blooming with sympathy, sweet as small spring flowers. Suddenly, he put down his glass of wine. His smile shrank, his white teeth eclipsed by his lips. A year before he had been in a terrible accident, he said. He had been on the highway. Blunt force trauma broke his ribs. Fractured vertebrae. He had scars from shattered glass. Nerve damage that would never fully heal. Facial numbness. I was dead, he said, but at the hospital they brought him back. Back, but asleep. He woke up seventeen days later. Cora cried, her eyes glittering.
After dinner, I went to get the cake in the kitchen. As I stood at the counter, sliding slices onto bone china plates, I grew aware of a shift in the shadows, and when I turned, Hayes was standing there, a few feet behind. His face was calm, still as a sculpture. I could smell the clean cypress green of his cologne. I came to thank you, mama, for inviting me to dinner, and I said don’t call me that. His gaze went to the knife still in my hand, and he smiled. Let go of your anger, he said, all your helpless rage. I’ll be no unfitting husband for your daughter.
In October, my friend Kate called me from Devonshire Mall. She had seen Cora there, she said, with Hayes. I went there right away, but it was too late. They were gone.
Where did you see her?
Kate held her hand out. Here, she said. The food court. Illuminated by the wide skylights, it was so bright I could barely see. It seemed impossible that after months, Cora could resurface in the most mundane of places.
How was she, I asked. What did she look like?
Kate hesitated. She hadn’t spoken to her, she said. She looked different. At first she almost hadn’t recognized her. Then she took off her glasses.
Cora doesn’t wear glasses.
Sunglasses, Kate said, a pair of aviators—gold rims, blue shades. Beautiful.
She was wearing grey sweatpants, a green army jacket, her dark hair loose. Kate wavered for a moment like she was weighing out the rest. And she seemed upset, she finally said. Hayes was walking away, and she was following him, yelling. She had a hairbrush in her hand and the whole time she was combing her hair.
For awhile I wandered through the mall. It had changed so much since I’d brought Cora here as a child. There used to be fountains here, beautiful white tiles flecked with gold. People threw coins in, mostly pennies, copper circles winking underneath the water. Wishing wells. They were gone now, the fountains, the pennies. It made me think of whiskey. J. P. Wiser’s. You could often see their trucks around the city. When Cora was little, learning to read, she called them the wishers trucks. I hadn’t thought about that in years.
You think of maternal instinct as tender, gentle. And it is, sometimes. But it’s more than that. It’s something bloody, painful. It’s wasps committing ovicide to benefit their own eggs. It’s mother bears, full of mercy, killing their sick cubs.
There was no one at the front desk of the motel. I made my way to the stairs. The hallways were hung with velvet paintings, ships against black skies, their sails absinthe green.
The door to Cora’s room was ajar. The radio was on. She was lying on the bed, the curtains drawn, the lights off. Hello my heart. She looked up as I stood in the doorway. Mom!
She was wearing a dressing gown, pale cream, tied around her waist with a wide sash, her feet bare, hair down. It had been dyed and re-dyed, a strata of dark shades. She got to her feet like she was underwater.
I went to open the curtains, but Cora said no, don’t. She looked ashen, as if she was lit from within by a dull grey light, her skin suffused in the shade. The dressing gown slid low over a shoulder, disclosing a shock of bone.
Don’t you miss the sunlight, I said.
Cora fixed her gown. She wrapped her arms around herself, her body lost in a slow rocking motion, soothing. You can get used to anything.
On the small table was a dirty ash tray, a handful of loose coins shining like moons, a half-eaten plate of fruit, looking waxy and unreal, the rind red as the pairs of wax lips we used to get on Halloween. Where is he?
Hayes left, she said, an hour ago. To visit his father and ask for some money. Don’t hold your breath, she had told him. His father had long ago cut him off. He didn’t understand, she said, sadly, how Hayes suffered, how sometimes the only thing that could help him was the pills.
Cora, it’s time to come home.
I can’t leave, she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed. Her fingers pecked at the plate of fruit, the wet ruby pulp, picking seeds out.
You have nothing to read here, I said, looking around. She’d always had something. I should have brought a book, a field guide of snakes, a botanical journal. I couldn’t imagine Cora without anything to read.
I can’t focus very well, anyway, she said, I get headaches. She sat on the edge of the bed, barefoot, sucking on seeds. By her throat like a brooch was a bruise, the size of a fingerprint.
Do you need some money?
Cora hesitated. Well, she said, we could use it. It would make things easier. But only a little. Hayes can’t have too much money at once, it wouldn’t be good.
Why don’t you just hide it from him, I asked, and she shook her head.
I gave her five twenty dollar bills. On the backs of the bills were poppies, scarlet amidst the maple leaf motif. She handed me back three, she said it would be too much at once. Cora thanked me. She cried a bit and said she missed me. When we went to hug goodbye, I felt the bones of her back protruding like the cold stone folded wings of statues. She said, come visit us again, and I conjured up a smile. I said I would, of course.
I closed the door behind myself, found the stairs again. There was still no one at the front desk but there was a tin pail out now, to catch water dripping from a crack in the ceiling. The motel seemed abandoned.
I saw Hayes before he saw me, out in the parking lot trying the doors of cars. He had a grey sweater on, the hood pulled low over his face. He was missing his beautiful watch. When he got to the gravel, where my car was parked, he looked up. His blue eyes sharp with the eyeshine of night creatures glimpsed at the edge of the woods. Tapetum lucidem, bright tapestry. Trait of predators, of creatures of the deep sea. Hey, mama, he said. You must have missed me.
His dark hair, once so carefully tended, had grown wild. He wasn’t wearing the cologne he’d worn before. Now he smelled like stale water, like smoke. For a moment I felt sad for him.
Did you really think she was going to leave me, he asked. The waning crescent of his smile, one tooth missing. She loves me now. More than you’ll ever know.
Maybe I would have still walked past him then, gone to my car. But he grabbed my wrists, he said this time I need your help. If he hadn’t held me there like that, come on, mama. I just need a little help. Fifty dollars. Twenty. You must have something.
I stopped, nodded, yes, held out my purse, slid twenty, forty, sixty dollars from it, drew out another hundred, two hundred, three hundred, until I finally lost count, all in twenties green as new leaves. Slipped the money to his waiting hands, everything I have is yours. Maybe he said thank you, his numb lips pressed to my cheek, breathing deep. Maybe he didn’t.
When I got in my car again, I looked out the window. Rain was starting to fall. Soft, like a mother washing the face of the earth, wiping away the old snow, the slush, making things clean. The first damp, sputtered breath of spring. Winter’s sedative effect was wearing off. The flowers would come back again, now. They always do.