Tara’s Mother’s Skin
by Suzan Palumbo
“You eat the rice you pick out of the dirt?” I asked Tara’s Mother. I’d found her sitting on a wooden bench in the gallery of her squat, concrete house, massaging her inflamed elbow. The heat had been a noose at our throats that day and she was enjoying the late afternoon breeze, a serene expression splayed across her brow. She swayed like a dried banana leaf, twisted and weightless, framed by her doorway as I stood on the cracked earth of her yard talking to her.
“Yes, Farrah, I cook the rice children throw when they pass on the road. It’s good food they waste when they pelt it at me.” Her voice had the texture of rust-covered velvet, gritty but soft underneath. I scribbled her responses in my notepad and drew a question mark after the words Tara’s Mother at the top of the page. When I’d returned from university, in St. Augustine, earlier that week, my inquiries about her identity and the daughter she was styled after had been met with a warning: “You looking for trouble, girl. Soucouyants don’t have first names,” Neighbourman had said. “Tara’s Mother is a leech. Only thing to do is leave rice on your window sill for her to count before sunrise so she can’t break in your room and bite you.”
I paid Neighbourman no mind. Tara’s Mother’s lack of a proper name had always unsettled me. Even as a child, I’d spent whole afternoons on the grass under our tamarind tree, imagining what Tara’s Mother’s name might have been. Radika? Margaret? Nisha? The shape of the syllables on my tongue never fit the ancient woman everyone avoided.
“People say you are compelled to pick it up. The rice, I mean. That it keeps you . . . It distracts you—” I shifted my weight, struggling against the cut of my purse strap into my left shoulder. Inside the deep pocket, I’d also brought a jar of long grain parboil. The kind my mother bought in eight kilo bags. I’d meant to give it to her as a joke—an ironic apology for the times I’d tagged behind the kids who sped past this house on their way to the Presbyterian Primary, screaming murder and scattering rice in their wake as a prank. But as the evening shadows slunk around our legs, the jar had grown heavy, along with the memory that some of the rice the kids threw had been aimed at me. I couldn’t present Tara’s Mother with the food they’d used to mock her.
“You mean counting grains prevents a soucouyant like me from drinking people’s blood? Heh!” Her laugh was hollow. “You see this skin?” She tugged at her creviced face. “It slides away easier than a fresh bride’s satin nightgown. I fold it in my mortar and blaze like fire in the night. Then, I squeeze through the slits in your window sill, Farrah, and suck you dry.” She stretched her hands the width of her doorway. Clapped them closed, fixing her eyes on me, again. Needle sharp.
Guilt twisted in my gut like a gasping fish. I’d used that very rumour, the story that had isolated her in the village, to save myself from the hard hearted school bullies. I’d been an insecure kid. I’d overheard my aunts saying Farrah would be pretty if her eyes weren’t so big when they thought I wasn’t listening. Their words had marked me; made me awkward and shy. The girls in my form zeroed in on that self-consciousness—fed off it like flies. They stole the pinetarts Ma gave me for snack. If I answered a question or did well on a test, they’d surround me in the yard and shove me back and forth between them shouting, “You think you smart, Douen? You’re nothing, just a dead jumbie ghost nobody gives a damn about.” They’d push until I fell and my navy uniform was torn and bloodied. Afterwards I’d limp home and told Ma I tripped while she washed my cuts.
I made those stupid girls stop in the end. I said I was a Douen—threatened the entire school that if they laid one finger on me, Tara’s Mother would come for them. She’d suck their blood and shred their skins because all bad spirits were connected, and I was Tara’s Mother’s demon kin.
They let me be after that.
“No. No. That’s folklore.” I managed to say to Tara’s Mother. “That’s why I’m here. The assignment is to explore how these stories impact our lives. It’s for a university class.” She pulled the right corner of her lips into a smirk that said, you’re in university, excuse you. My face flashed hot. “I wanted to include you in my research paper. So, I could tell your real story.”
“Tell my real story?” She raised a sparse eyebrow and stood up, dragging her bench away from the door. “Come inside, Farrah,” she called from the dim interior. “I want to show you something.”
I stood on the threshold of her house, a whisper from long ago skittering up my spine. “Tara’s Mother lured my Auntie inside her house when she was little by promising her sweetbread,” a girl who’d come to visit my parents with her mother had said when I was six. “After Auntie was inside, Tara’s Mother locked the door and shoved her up against it. She slit Auntie’s cheek open with her thumb nail, peeled back the skin and made it into a cup while it was still stuck to her face. Tara’s Mother slurped up Auntie’s flesh like an oyster. She let her go when she was done, but Auntie has never been the same. Always adding up numbers in a corner, saying “Nice to meet you,” to herself over and over. Nobody in my family ever told the police. You can’t put a soucouyant in jail.”
The image of that girl’s aunt’s flayed cheek, bleeding and flopped over on her chin burned behind my eyelids at bedtime for weeks. I could still trace the outline of that face if I squeezed my eyes hard enough. But the cold perspective of adulthood and my own repetition of the stories insisted none of this was true. Her aunt must have been ill. She’d remembered wrong, or the girl had made the encounter up to scare people like I had done at school. Tara’s Mother, bone thin, shifted inside the house waiting for me. Barely a hundred pounds, she probably couldn’t turn a can opener by herself, much less hold me captive against a door.
I followed her inside.
The L-shaped room was unbalanced. Lit only by the horizontal shafts of light that escaped the louvered windows, the floors sloped away from the door, forcing me to stand deeper in the space than I’d wanted to venture. It was stuffy. The air, which was thick with the scent of mustard seeds, turmeric, and pickled fruit, masked the sickly smell of spoiled meat. A threadbare couch faced an old tube television and the walls were painted a bruised blue—a suffocating colour that strangled the already feeble light; a color that recalled the marks on Ma’s arms the mornings after Dad had come home from drinking rum and I had fallen asleep hiding in my closet. Every attempt at domestic comfort in Tara’s Mother’s home had withered. It was as if years of deprivation had seeped into the foundations of the house itself and made the interior incompatible with cheeriness and light.
Leave. The thought weighed on my sternum; pressed against my lungs. Nothing here was right. It didn’t stem from a fatal flaw within her. It was poverty. I couldn’t abandon Tara’s Mother now. Not when the entire village had shunned her. I clenched my jaw and stood firm.
“Look here.” She waved me over to a small table. On it was picture of a family standing in front of Niagara Falls.
“See her?” she said, gesturing to a middle-aged woman in the print.
“That’s Tara, my daughter.”
I squinted in the gloom. The short woman in the photo’s eyes bored into me. The same insolent chin jutted upwards as her supposed mother, though this woman’s had been softened by ample food and a smile. “How come you never went to live with Tara?” I asked.
“It’s a different life there. They don’t want an old lady in the way. Besides, I can’t take the cold.” She rubbed her arms as if they’d been kissed by an arctic gust. “Sometimes, Tara sends me money. Her father left when she was six months old, you know that? I raised that girl alone. Worked like a dog to pay for tuition and uniforms and books.” She was quiet for a moment. When she continued, there was a tremor in her voice. “People lectured me. Said I was working obeah, making deals with bad spirits to make the money stretch. Back then it was all cleaning houses and washing wares. I’m too old for work now.”
I cast my eyes about the space again while she spoke. It could have been the humble home my own mother grew up in, under different circumstances. There was a tiny kitchen at the back connected by a door way to the dining area on my left, which contained a metal table and four chairs. The furniture was unremarkable and shabby except . . . except for the mortar on the table. I recoiled from it, repulsed. Ornate with a slick, black lacquered finish, it glinted unnaturally in the low light. It wasn’t out of place for Tara’s Mother to own one. Every woman kept a mortar in her kitchen, to pound garlic and pepper to flavour her food; to help grind away the bitterness and silent disappointments of life. I’d watched my own mother bury her heartache every night with a stone pestle in our kitchen. But this mortar wasn’t like my mother’s. It was too pristine; unspoiled, like it had never been used to prepare food. I flinched, recalling the legends of what she kept inside it. Tara’s Mother tensed beside me. She stopped speaking and stared at the mortar.
“Tell me more about Tara,” I said, grasping at the thread of her story.
She sucked air in between her teeth. Huffed into her tiny kitchen. She returned and shoved a box of salt into my chest. “Go on. Pour it in the mortar.” She pointed her gnarled finger towards the card table. “Shrink my skin. When I take it off and put it inside tonight I won’t be able to get it back on in the morning.” Fire glinted in her pupils, which had grown large with the approaching night. “That’s what you want.”
I held the box against my chest. It was almost empty, though you only needed a handful to ruin her skin if you believed the stories. I searched her expression for a hint, a clue to what she wanted me to do. Uncertainty curled at the corners of her lips. My skin tingled under her gaze.
We were both afraid.
I put the box down on the table.
“Heh. Lost your chance.” She crossed her arms, her vulnerability from seconds earlier gone.
“I came here so I could tell people the truth about you. I don’t know what you’ve had to do to keep this roof over your head, but it isn’t your fault. We should have helped you.” My tongue clacked dry against my palette, emphasising each word. Anger at myself, at the callousness of everyone in the village balled my fists.
“What is my truth, Farrah?” Her voice had become a thousand pinpricks brushing against my skin. “We’re all hungry. You don’t get to be an old woman in this life without a sacrifice. I’ve made my peace with that. You’re not here for me, girl. You’re here to help yourself.”
“Me?” I shivered despite the heat. Her stare penetrated me, laying bare the old wounds I thought I’d kept well concealed. She could read me; could see why I was here and what I wanted to know. I caught myself nodding along with her and shook my head. No. No . . . .This wasn’t about me. This was about her life and who she’d been. I needed to get our conversation back on track. Fumbling in my bag, I grabbed the jar. “Here, have this. You won’t have to collect rice from the dirt.”
She stiffened at the sight of the rice; jerked closer, as if she were yanked towards it. I saw myself reflected in the inky pools her eyes had become, my mouth agape, my eyes distorted and wide. She cupped her hands around the bottom of the glass below mine. We held it between us. It warmed our palms. The muscles in her face quivered; her skin shifted downwards as if the filaments holding it in place had begun to disintegrate.
“Go, child,” she slurred. Saliva leaked down the sides of her chin collecting in the new accordion folds of skin that sagged around her neck. “It’s dark.”
The breath shriveled in my throat.
She wrenched the jar from me. It fell, smashing on the floor. Shards of glittering glass and rice scattered around us. Her upper body shot downwards at an inhuman angle, ramrod straight, her vertebrae cracking with the violent motion. She began to pick each grain off the ground between her pincered left index finger and thumb and deposit them into her right palm. Her lips moved silently, counting.
The room baked hotter with each grain she retrieved. The stench of rancid rice filled my sinuses, turning my stomach. Sweat leaked down my forehead, stinging my eyes, though I couldn’t look away. Her skin had separated from her form. It hung from the crown of her head like a sheet, rendering her face blunt and featureless. As the pile of rice grew in the depression that was her hand, her skin undulated, flexing under the push of her limbs like an animal trapped in a slick amniotic sack. She counted louder, gasping at the numbers in a humid gurgle. The heat swallowed the oxygen in the room. I swayed on the edge of losing conscious. My body stumbled involuntarily, desperately seeking the cool current of air near her door.
I backed out of her house, my eyes transfixed on her bent glowing shape. This was her truth. The night clung to my skin as I turned to run on the main road. In the bushes, wild dogs yelped, sharp and bloodthirsty. We’re all hungry, they howled over and over, drowning out all other sound.
Our house was empty, my parents having gone out to visit my aunt. I flung my purse on the dresser, pulled off my clothes and crawled into bed. I stared at the ceiling, the buzz of a mosquito outside the netting underscoring the slow motion replay of the jar shattering on her floor.
That night, I dreamt I was in my torn navy uniform. The girls had surrounded me, shouting, “Douen.” Their circle tightened after each repetition until I could taste their sour breath on my lips. I pushed my way free and ran. My feet were attached backwards to my ankles and they took me to Tara’s Mother’s door, instead of home. The bullies reappeared at the edge of her yard, taunting me, testing the invisible boundary of her property. Canines bared, they’d morphed into wolves. I imagined them sinking their teeth into me, into my neck and abdomen; devouring me until there was nothing left but blood and bone. I backed up Tara’s Mother’s gallery steps and tripped inside her door.
The room was vacant except for the mortar on her table. “In here.” Tara’s mother’s voice filled the room. I approached the table. Peered in the mortar. It was bottomless black. “Inside, Farrah,” she said.
My stomach trembled like soft, coconut jelly. Outside, the barking sharpened, rattling the table and resonating inside my skull. The room tilted, tipping me towards her voice. There was no other exit. I put the mortar on the floor. Pointing my right toe, I pushed my foot inside the bowl. The opening stretched around my heel and shin like spandex, accommodating my entire leg. The mortar supported my full weight and I eased my other foot inside. I sank deeper, letting its heat envelop me like a cocoon; letting it burn away every hard word I’d heard my entire life; soothe every hurt, until I couldn’t remember who I was or why I’d run inside her house. Until all that was left was my breathing and darkness.
I woke to the din of my mother shuffling in the kitchen. The bedroom spun. My tongue was swollen and my head hurt. I shifted to sit on the edge of the bed. The sheets were splotched with blood. I reached down. Two blue bruises the size of small plums bloomed on my right inner thigh just below the cut of my underwear. I ran my fingers over them. Each had twin, pin-like holes in the center. Puncture wounds that ached. I bit my lip and looked towards the window.
A crimson drop marked the sill. The lesions on my legs were still warm and wet. Yet, my heartbeat was steady.
I stood and wiped the blood from the ledge. The skin on my hands slipped like an ill-fitting glove. It had loosened overnight—become detached. It rippled when I breathed and then constricted around the base of my neck; forcing a sound up the muscles inside my throat, regurgitating it in my mouth. The word tasted like cilantro and curry, chilli and garlic, lime and mangoes. All the flavours of a lifetime rolled out on my tongue.
I snatched the book from my purse on the dresser, drew a line through Tara’s Mother on the page with my notes and wrote Kamala above it. “Kamala, Kamala, Kamala,” I repeated. There was a musicality to her name; a clarity that hadn’t faded with disuse or time. I savoured the secret now hidden in my mouth.
I stripped the bloodstained sheets from the mattress; my skin slipped around my muscles like the slack bed linens. I bundled them in my arms and brought them with me to the kitchen, the bruises on my legs throbbing as I padded down the hall. Standing in the doorway, I watched my mother hover over the stove making fresh roti for my father’s breakfast. She took one finished piece, piping hot from the griddle, flipped it onto a dish towel and sliced it in quarters. Steam billowed upwards from the inside. She looked at me, the lines around her eyes deepening. Her lips trembled, frantic for the absent contours of my name.
“Good Morning, Ma,” I said, cutting the unnatural silence. “I need the mortar.”
About the Author
Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Suzan Palumbo is a writer, editor and teacher based in Toronto, Canada. Suzan uses her writing to explore the inter sectional nature of Identity, Sexuality, Race and Power and the liminal spaces created by cultural fusion. Her work is also greatly influenced by the natural world and her love of the forest. She has been published most recently by Fireside Fiction Magazine and PodCastle. You can find links to all of her stories on her website.
About the Narrator
Celebrating the West Indian now while designing our survival of the future, Arielle approaches poetry and theatre performance as medicine for Atlantic peoples, their resilient cultures, and the land (and sea) they occupy. Her devotion to community-building work centres on transformative justice, sustainable living and the healing arts, working within the Caribbean and its diaspora.
About the Artist
who draws ghosts & monsters
Horror & weird fiction enthusiast