Wet by Jaclyn Desforges
In “Wet,” Jaclyn Desforges’s narrator dwells in the discomfort, surreality, and sacrifice that motherhood engenders, populated by such candid admissions as “Mother, the happiest I have ever been is in the pockets of time in which I felt alone.” The narrator, raised by a distant stepmother, is herself the mother of young adult Julie, who has returned home for a visit only to find that her mother is caring for an unexplained gaggle of babies who are not her own. Here is where Desforges’s gift for narration begins to gleam, in all its surreal and embodied glory. Simultaneously, she crafts a unique approach to the passage of time, or lack thereof, as the narrator grapples with the hurt she carries with her from her own childhood—the narrator is both mother and daughter, forever reliving the cruelties of her girlhood while also trying to raise her own daughter free of her own fear and loneliness. This fear has taken many forms: disordered eating, emotional and physical distance, and a devotion to self-sacrifice as her own needs are sublimated beneath those of the “mysterious babies.” These struggles are rendered in detail that is both lyrical yet grounded in the unavoidable concrete facts of the body, staying faithful to the truth of motherhood in all its beauty and grotesquerie. At the heart of it all—thundering through the story toward its glistening, uncanny conclusion—is love. The all-encompassing love the narrator feels for Julie, and an innate desire that Julie should understand how enormous and unstoppable that love can be. In her author’s note, Desforges describes the struggle of constructing a short story in which the strength of the poetic language is so undeniable: “How do I move beyond beauty in order to make meaning?” Here, we find a piece that unites those essential virtues of sentence-level innovation and overall thematic coherence to create a short story that is stunning in its degree of complexity and elegance. —CRAFT
Mother, this house is full of babies. From the mouth of the kitchen I hear their cooing and from the top of the staircase I hear their cooing. I stand and hear their cooing from the living room.
I pick a baby up, the soft weight on my hip. My body slopes slightly to the right.
Mother, there are cans of soda in the refrigerator. There is a jar of kimchi in the refrigerator. There are blueberries in the refrigerator. There is nothing else in the refrigerator.
The walls are wallpapered. The kitchen floor is a solid block of stone. This house is clean, like you would have wanted, and this baby is clean. I washed him, gently, with a washcloth.
When you were my mother, you hid in your room with your migraines. You said they came on like a waterfall, in a hurry to get lower.
When I was a teenager, my boyfriend sneaked into my bedroom and stole my diary and read it out loud to his friends. And I stopped writing and never felt alone again.
When there is an invasion, aloneness disappears.
When you are a mother, aloneness disappears.
Aloneness slips behind a waterfall. I had a baby at eighteen, after I left your house (my father’s house), and I nursed and nursed and never stopped. When my baby stood up from my breast and walked out of the house, I found another baby, and then another. The gushing of milk was the gushing of my own power, my own attention. There was an emptiness at the centre of each hour, and my milk was its perfect opposite.
I line the babies up, all five of them, in their high chairs.
I line ripe blueberries along each tray.
Mother. You never wanted me to call you that. What did you do after I left? I bet you read magazines.
I sweep the floor, Mother, and I mop the floor, Mother, and I dust the lamps and the television set. I was born in an era of clean and unclean, and now Julie is coming home.
Mother, I had a mother before you.
What I remember about that mother is bananas and sugar in a red bowl; I remember slurping down my milk. What I remember about Julie is the bounce of her ponytail, her suitcase, the open and shut of her door.
After dropping her off at university, I remember driving home and stripping her bedroom of every object. I remember scrubbing the floor on my knees. Today, I pop one baby into my front carrier and another baby into my back carrier. I make up Julie’s room with a fresh quilt and cut flowers. I dust her desk and lay down a stack of white paper. I fill her pen holder with pens.
“Big noise,” I warn, then I vacuum the curtains.
Mother, you only served water with dinner. Mother, if you knew me, would you be proud of me? The key in the door is Julie’s and her hair is longer now and not ponytailed at all and she’s wearing black stretchy pants and a sweatshirt.
“You’re here,” I say.
“I’m here,” she says.
She hasn’t been here in six months. When Julie was eight, she had a budgie and the budgie died. When she was eight, we buried the budgie. Julie wrote a poem and we both cried, but now I am the only one crying.
“Nothing,” I say. “What could be wrong? You’re here.” I can’t hug her because of the baby strapped to my front so I place my hands on her cheeks. I look at her face. I look into her eyes and press my forehead to her forehead.
“I missed you too, Mom,” she says. She drops her backpack in the hallway. “Do we have anything to eat?”
Julie waits in the front while I buckle the babies into their car seats. On the way to the grocery store, she puts on dark sunglasses. She plays music from her phone through the van’s speakers, something discordant. We pull into the parking lot. I push the stroller through the aisles and look at all the foods I will not eat. Julie pushes her own cart along the smooth linoleum and adds Wonder Bread, a head of lettuce, frozen lasagna, a pint of ice cream.
The babies are fussing, so I give each one a small apple to clutch in their chubby fists.
The first summer I stopped eating, time stopped. When I started eating again, time rushed forward. Mother, the last time I stood still in the produce aisle, a beautiful woman approached me. She was glowing. She was an entire sun. Aside from you, she was the cleanest person I have ever met.
“You should juice this,” she said, holding up an unfamiliar fruit. “It’ll change everything.”
I bought that fruit in order to please her. I juiced the fruit but I didn’t drink it. I juiced it and felt happy I had juiced it but then I looked at the lifeless pulp and felt sad. I left the pulp in the juicer for so long the whole thing turned moldy and I had to throw it out.
On the way home from the grocery store, Julie looks down at her hands. “Mom, you look really skinny.”
Mother, I want you to know I have always fed the babies.
Mother, I want you to know I have always fed my daughter.
I signal that we are turning right, back to the street, back to the house, back to the front door.
“You look beautiful,” I say. “You’re radiating life,” I say. “I’m so proud of you,” I say.
She turns and looks out the passenger window where the houses are passing us faster and faster. “Thanks.”
When Julie was a baby, I was terrified to bathe her. I knew a baby could drown in an inch of water. I would plug the tub and let just enough in so she could splash – an eighth of an inch, a sixteenth of an inch – and I dipped my hands in the water and cupped my hands in the water and poured the water over her skin. I wiped her face with a damp washcloth. My hands trembled the whole time.
Mother, do you remember the way you used to wash my hair?
The babies are babbling in their playpens and I am standing in the kitchen, over the hot stove, warming up Julie’s lasagna. Then she’s there, in the doorway.
“Mom, where is all my stuff?”
“In the basement,” I say.
“Why is it in the basement?”
“To keep it safe.”
“Safe? Safe from what?”
The oven door squeaks open and the cheese is bubbling. I lift the lasagna out with a single frayed oven mitt, and when the heat of the tray nips me, I don’t flinch.
“You never talk to me,” she says. “You never call me,” she says. “Didn’t you think I would ever come back?”
I pick up a knife with my left hand. I sink it into the layers of pasta and mozzarella and tomato and ground beef. The smell makes my heart jump. It makes me dizzy.
I cut Julie a fat slice. Then I lift the cellar door.
“I’ll go get the boxes,” I say. “I love you.”
“I don’t care,” she says. “I just want to know why.”
Mother, the happiest I have ever been is topless, on the roof of your garage (my father’s garage), oiling my body and roasting. Mother, the happiest I have ever been is in the pockets of time in which I felt alone.
But there is no such thing as alone.
I lower the cellar stairs down. I pull the cord hanging from the single exposed light bulb. I lift up a cardboard box. Julie is written on it in my neatest Sharpie cursive.
“Here,” I say. “Take it.”
She peers down into the hole. “I don’t want it.”
“You just said you wanted your things.” I hold the box up high until she takes it, and then I lift up another box, and another, and soon she is surrounded. Each box is sealed carefully with packing tape.
I climb back up. “You can take them home with you,” I offer. “If you want.”
“Home?” In the other room, a baby starts shrieking.
Mother, the first time I left, you didn’t notice. My boyfriend picked me up and drove me to his parents’ vacation home. I phoned you and you didn’t answer. I left a message that said Candace I am never coming back. Then I left the phone number of the lake house. The family went for a boat ride but I said I had a stomachache. I read old paperbacks from my boyfriend’s father’s bookshelf. And when they dropped me off on Monday morning, you were in the spot I left you, reading magazines. And the light on the answering machine was still blinking.
Julie is crying. I collect the shrieking baby and bring him to the kitchen. The chair squeaks when I pull it out. I pop my nipple into his little mouth.
Mother, my daughter is so beautiful. Mother, I want to show her what’s inside her – what is glowing and perfect and real. I want her to see, with her own eyes, the life force emanating from her centre.
When she left, I knew she was leaving forever. When she left, I knew that part of my life was over.
“Julie,” I say. “I love you more than anything.”
“Then why don’t you want me here?”
“You’re always welcome here,” I say. The baby is wriggling. I put him down onto the floor. “But I’ll never try and keep you. You’re free now. I’ll let you go.”
She picks up a box and carries it towards her room. She crosses the threshold and says nothing.
Mother, it was my idea to go to the lake. When I think about the lake, I know it is my fault.
You wore a floppy hat and a flowing bathing suit cover. There were other girls at the lake, girls with their mothers, and I wanted to be a girl with a mother.
The girls were running and playing and jumping off the dock, and I couldn’t understand them – that’s what I remember – there were words but they were layered overtop of other words, and layers of shrieking and laughter.
The cold water surprised me. I tiptoed past the rocky bottom out to the soft sand.
My friend motioned me forward. She was older and strong, nearly a head taller. Her collarbones jutted out and her elbows were sharp. I could have stared at her elbows forever. The lake water tasted lifelike and I let some dribble into my mouth.
My friend waved past me. I turned and saw her mother waving back. And I waved at you, Mother, and you were reading a home décor magazine in a Muskoka chair, and I waved and waved but you didn’t see. And then my friend dove under and emerged far from me, near the dock and the other girls, and my feet dug deeper into the muck. The weeds licked at my calves and gentle waves came, but the water was already past my upper lip.
I remember thinking, I shouldn’t have eaten.
I started moving, paddling towards the dock. One of the big boys was there, maybe twelve or thirteen, and he ran full speed toward the edge. I reached out to grab onto something, the word wait in my throat. But then he was looming over me, falling in slow motion, legs pulled up to his torso. And then he crashed, his foot hard against my nose, and his whole weight was on me, a violence.
He pressed my body into the soft lake bed.
The boy swam away. I opened my eyes at the bottom. I knew, with a rush, that the water couldn’t enter me: I had a secret eyelid, and it kept the lake out. Then I opened my eyes again and I was on the beach, vomiting, I was on the beach, wetting myself, I was on the beach, retching up bile. My mouth tasted metallic, blood was streaming out of my nose and I was coughing, snorting like a pig. And there you were, Mother, standing over me. And your face was contorted with disgust.
Later, I learned virginity can be restored with lake water. I learned there is always a way to get clean.
Mother, when you washed my hair, you held me down. You submerged me all the way.
In the middle of the night, I wake up to Julie’s shadow in the doorway.
I sit up. She steps forward into the moonlight. There are tears streaked down her face.
“I’m afraid of carbon monoxide,” she says. “I’m afraid of big dogs. I’m afraid of losing everything. I don’t want you to let me go.”
“Shhh,” I say. I tuck her into my bed. I open the window to let the cool air in and I wrap myself around her and stroke her hair. “How could you lose anything? You’re at the centre of it all. Everything good in this world springs from you.”
She stops crying. The night is quiet, only cricket sounds. She rests her face in the crook of my neck, just like she did when she was a baby.
“What was your mom like?” she asks. “I don’t know anything about her.”
“She died when I was little.”
“I know,” she says. “I mean your stepmom.”
“She liked to read,” I say. “She was very beautiful. She washed my hair on Saturdays.”
“What about your dad?”
“He was always gone. Travelling the world,” I say. “He would have loved you.” But I don’t know if that’s exactly true.
In the morning, I drive her back to university. The babies are crying as we stand outside the van together. I squeeze her so tight. I watch her enter the building, an old brick dorm, and I wait as she climbs the four flights of stairs and unlocks her door. She comes to the window and waves.
“Goodbye,” I say, and I wave back.
The babies and I drive home along the coast. We stop at a gas station and I breastfeed them two at a time. Their perfect eyes, their little mouths.
When we get home, I take a shower. I wash myself and feel the edges of my bones which are jutting out. I feel the edges of my body against the soft world.
That night, Julie calls. “Do you hate me?” she asks.
“How could I hate you?” I say. “You’re everything to me.”
You wouldn’t like this, Mother, but when I think about Julie’s dorm room – filled with posters, probably, and dirty dishes, and laundry piled on the floor – I feel happy. I imagine her closet bursting with too many clothes. I imagine her rising up and out into the world, taking up every space. I imagine her being loved.
In the weeks that follow, I get smaller and smaller until all that is left is hard and pure and crystalline. I don’t need to move anymore. I barely need to breathe. My entire being becomes slow and I am filled with a solidity I have never before possessed. I feel wise and certain. I make a careful list of all the babies, their weights and names. One by one, I call their mothers.
I pack each baby a bag. I kiss each baby on the forehead. When the mothers arrive in their pantsuits, they nod and thank me for my service. They carry the babies to their midsize sedans. They introduce the babies to their brothers and sisters. I look, one last time, into the perfect wet depths of their eyes.
I sit down on the couch. I think about turning on the television, but I don’t. I see now that the wall itself is everything: it contains all the colours and shapes of the world. I sit at the centre of the couch, at the exact centre point of the house. I feel myself shrinking, getting stronger, harder.
Time stops, but the sun keeps rising. When the light hits me, I refract it. I look down at myself: I am firm and pure, a marble made of glass.
When I hear Julie’s key in the door, I am excited to show her.
She walks over to the couch, her eyes reddening. “Oh,” she says. “Oh, Mama.”
She puts me in her pocket. She carries me home.
JACLYN DESFORGES is the 2023-24 Mabel Pugh Taylor Writer in Residence at McMaster University and Hamilton Public Library. She’s the queer and neurodivergent author of Danger Flower (Palimpsest Press/Anstruther Books), winner of the 2022 Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry, and one of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s picks for the best Canadian poetry of 2021. She’s also the author of Why Are You So Quiet? (Annick Press, 2020), which was shortlisted for a Chocolate Lily Award and selected for the 2023 Toronto-Dominion Bank Summer Reading Club. Jaclyn is a Pushcart-nominated writer and the winner of numerous awards, including the 2018 Royal Bank of Canada/PEN Canada New Voices Award. Jaclyn’s writing has been featured in literary magazines across Canada. She holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia’s School of Creative Writing and is working on a novel. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @jaclyndesforges.
Featured image by Yessica Villalobos, courtesy of Unsplash.