Shari Hirsch: Beautiful Savages
Mama used to brush my hair at night before bedtime. We'd sit on the porch together, feeling the cool sensation of silk throw rugs beneath our bare thighs. Mama would be behind me¾so close I could smell the fragrance of her violet perfume. Sometimes, she'd lean forward so her pretty, heart-shaped face would rest on my shoulder. The point of her chin would dug lightly into my skin, but I hadn't mind.
I loved my special time with Mama.
When we were alone together, she'd really talk to me, the same way she did with one of her friends or my aunties. She made me feel special like I wasn't a baby. I was a woman.
Tonight, we observed our old ritual.
“Never follow a man,” she whispered into my ear as she brushed the tangles from my hair. “Men are foolish¾much like that boy from down the street that you like to play with. You're not foolish, Fumi. Don't behave foolishly.”
“Men are foolish,” I repeated. I wanted her to know I was listening.
“Don't become like me, my darling.”
She'd often say this, though I wasn't sure I really understood what she meant, at least not when I was younger. She was the purest form and embodiment of what a woman was, and what a woman should be. Why would I not want to be a goddess like her in my own right when I was older?
“I will be whatever you want me to be,” I said as I traced my fingertips over the goosebumps forming on my forearm, staring out into the darkness ahead. The black outline of pine trees blanketed our house, the familiarity giving me a sense of comfort.
That night, I had the dream.
I was down by the beach, surrounded by women, the smell of incense strong in the air: wood and green tea¾no hint of sweetness.
The women all had thick, black hair, milk-colored skin, cold, black eyes, and blood red lips. Masks made out of broken skulls adorned half of their faces, from forehead to nose. They didn't speak. Instead, they waved their hands through the air, slashing at nothing with long, yellow nails. Their smiles were the worst thing I'd ever seen¾hideous. Their teeth were plastic zippers, sealed shut and glowing.
One of them, smaller than the others, became curious of me. Over her naked body, she wore a silky robe of yellow and blue that trailed behind her. She approached me, and when we were face-to-face, she lifted her hand and unzipped the toggle at the end of her mouth with one of her long fingernails.
She licked my cheek, her tongue cold and smooth against my skin. I stepped back to look at her. I had the strangest sense of familiarity and a desperate urge to look away from the gruesome sight. She licked me again, and I shuddered. Her tongue was a bright green with two small, black eyes, and a long, forked, pink tongue of its own. Her tongue was a snake.
I told Mama about the dream in the morning before breakfast.
She sniffed and waved her hand over a cloud of steam that erupted after she lifted the lid off a pot of rice.
She whispered, biting into her lips, “Nure-onna, the snake woman.”
I thought of the old folktale. An amphibious beast with the body of a snake and the face of an angelic woman. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes as I shook my head.
“No, Mama. The serpent was inside her, not a part of her body.”
I watched as Mama flew through the kitchen in her pale robe. Her waist-length hair flicked so quick it became a blur, smacking against her back.
“It's bewitchment,” she said as I followed her to the table.
Mama artfully placed down the china bowls along with a steaming plate of rice, a pot of soup, and some fish she'd bought early that morning down at the market.
“I just worry about you, my Fumi. You know your grandma's mania started with dreams.”
“I know,” I replied, sinking into one of the cushions on the floor as Mama raced back into the kitchen.
I felt my appetite drain away, leaving a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. Bad dreams. Mama said the dreams had caused grandma to bolt out of bed before sunrise. She'd glide through the house, looking blood-drained and chalk white as though she'd seen an apparition, whispering to herself, speaking of spirits and a dark presence. Mama said her passing was a blessing; it gave her peace.
I could feel Mama's eyes on me. She was thinking about her, too. Her lower lip quivered slightly as it sometimes did when she was about to cry.
“Eat up,” she said. “Let's not worry our minds about such things right now.” She sat down, brushing out the wrinkles from her robe before she grabbed one of the bowls.
We ate in silence. Morning came and went quickly. I did my chores, sweeping and tidying around the house before I took Tom, our dog, for a walk. We headed east past the forest. Tom nipped at my heels and barked at our neighbor, Kyoshi, when he came down the pathway.
“Good afternoon, Fumi,” he said. “It's lovely today, isn't it?”
I fought a grin as I stared at his forever shaggy, black hair. I'd met Kyoshi when I was five and he was six. We’d bonded quickly over a love of digging up earthworms in the garden, building them magical castles made out of newspapers and plastic scraps. Mama didn't approve.
“Yes, it is,” I replied, watching as pink spots appeared on his cheeks.
“How is your mother?” He asked.
As he knelt down to pet Tom, I noticed that Kyoshi’s shoulders were beginning to broaden out, and the pudgy mound of baby fat around his belly was gone. It was strange¾as a child he'd been much rounder and was often teased for being overweight. Suddenly, it was like staring at a stranger. I hadn't noticed us changing as the years went by, but now I felt all too aware. I stared down at Tom.
“She's doing really well, Kyoshi.”
“That's good. So, the doctor's treatments are helping then?”
I opened my mouth.
“Kyoshi!” A voice rang out from behind the trees.
“Coming!” He replied, jumping up and brushing the blades of grass from his knees. I felt an urge to ask him to stay but couldn't get the words to come out.
“I must go,” he said to me, before turning toward the trees. He seemed to disappear so quickly it was as if he'd never been there at all.
“Bye, Kyoshi,” I whispered to the rustling branches. I wouldn't tell Mama about our quick run-in. The older Kyoshi got, the more she seemed to disapprove of him hanging around.
We headed back home for lunch. Mama and I ate rice balls stuffed with umeboshi and eggs on the porch.
“I have spoken with your Auntie Tearu about your dream.”
I looked up at her, my mouth still full with a bite of pickled plum. It tingled on my lips.
Her brows raised as she gave me a look. Her fingernails tapped on her collarbone briefly.
“I'm only doing what I must.”
Despite my opposition, I remained quiet.
“This is for the best, Fumi,” she said.
Off in the trees somewhere came a high-pitched shriek. It startled me, but Mama ignored it.
“I fear that something is coming for you, my darling. Something coarse and wicked.”
“Nothing is coming for me, Mama.”
She stared out into the sea of trees, but didn't respond.
That night I could not sleep.
My mind wandered as I thought of conversations with my mother. Our special time on the porch where we'd share stories. Sometimes, when Mama was feeling up to it, she'd talk about her family, telling stories about growing up with my grandma and grandpa. Sometimes I'd imagine what they were like based off Mama's stories since they had passed before I was born.
“Your grandpa was a handsome man,” Mama told me one night as she tucked me in for bed, “Many women thought so, but he chose your grandma.” Mama paused briefly to shoo away a bug on the window sill before returning to the bed. “Handsome, but very serious, he didn't have time for anything he considered frivolous. There were only a handful of times during which we spoke alone together. It was very different with grandma.”
I remembered staring up at her intently as I asked her what she meant.
“We'd have adventures,” Mama said as her eyes twinkled with happy memories. “We'd dress up in our best outfits, our hair done up, and storm through the gardens to dig for buried treasure, drape sheets over low tree branches and pretend we lived in castles far away.” Mama wrapped her arm around me as she pulled me in close to her warm body. “But Papa would yell at her when we tracked in mud, and when he found the sheets torn and dirty with bugs and leaves,” her voice grew softer. “It broke her spirit.”
“Don't be sad, Mama,” I said as I wrapped my arm around her waist. “We can still have adventures.”
“At least your grandma had someone,” Mama said as if I hadn't spoken. “At least she wasn't all alone.”
“You're not alone Mama,” I said. “You'll always have me. Forever.”
She stared down at me and smiled.
“Forever,” she echoed, as she ran her fingers through my hair. “Forever and always.”
Hours passed before I fell asleep.
In my dreams, my mind took me back to the world of those beautiful savages. They watched me, their cruel-looking eyes seemed to dance beneath the strange skeleton masks they wore. They howled like Titans when I begged them to take me back through the smoke swirls to the mental sanctuary of my home and the loving arms of Mama.
I tried to wake up, but they held down my slight form, their talon-like nails digging into my shoulders. Their rancid breath was warm on my cheeks. They laughed high-pitched howls as they sniffed my dark hair, breathing in my soap scented, limp locks. Their teeth gnawed at my small, pouty lips, and when they drew my blood, relishing the salty taste with cries of joy, I screamed. I saw the outline of the city in the distance against a starless sky filled with dragons that looked as flimsy as tissue paper. Their wings fluttered in the cool breeze.
I watched silently.
Then, it began to rain. It streamed down, the water black and corrosive as battery acid. The dragon's wings of red and gold melted into nothing. The women holding me down threw back their heads and wailed. The rain burned away their hair, their skeleton masks. Their skin, which had once seemed so beautifully creamy and soft, was now eaten away, chunk by chunk. Left behind were hideous faces, skulls with small chunks of muscle hanging limply off bone.
In the morning, Mama asked me to go to temple with her to pray.
“It will help, my darling. Tearu recommended it.”
My auntie was just as eccentric as my mother.
I sighed. “Alright, Mama.”
After breakfast, we headed west through the forest toward the temple. It must have rained the night before. The air was crisp and fresh. Dewdrops trailed off oversized ferns and the earth was moist. The hem of my dress became mud-soaked.
I trailed behind Mama, watching my feet as they sank into the ground with each step. When I looked up, she was gone.
“Mama?” I called out, scanning the trees.
The forest was quiet. I could not hear her footsteps, see her tracks, or hear her voice calling me.
“Mama!” I said louder.
The forest was still, save for the chirping of birds and the humming of crickets.
I raced the last mile to the temple.
“Mama!” I cried. My voice bounced off the trees, echoing back to me.
I could see the temple up ahead. Rainwater dripped off the top of the sloped roof, collecting into a large puddle near the base.
I raced up the pathway and through the gate, almost falling on a slippery stone on the path. When I got to the steps, I slowed down.
The door felt slightly sticky in my hands as I slid it open. I moved quickly, but quietly, through the rooms, searching.
“Mama!” I hissed. “Where are you?”
At the end of the main hallway, I slid open another door leading to a small room, perfumed with jasmine incense. Colorfully decorated banners hung from the walls, and a small, wooden table held a bowl of pears and figs.
“Mama?” I whispered to a figure crouched down on a mat.
She lifted her head. “Darling!”
“Mama, why didn't you wait for me?”
She grinned. “You're here now, dear. That's all that matters. Come,” she waved me over, “sit with me.”
I was so confused. My head felt strangely heavy and cloudy. How could she have gotten here so fast?
I began to chew on my nails, a nasty habit, one Mama had always tried to discourage with little success.
My left hand dropped from my mouth and I moved to join her.
After we'd finished praying, Mama and I walked silently down the paths outside. The gardens were beautiful, artfully arranged with sculptures, rockeries, and ornamental decor. Beneath a red maple tree, a small, bronze Buddha smiled at us cheerfully, his large belly exposed from his clothes. As Mama and I walked past the statue, a man in brown robes brushed past.
He nodded to us.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Lovely day,” said Mama.
He grinned at me, revealing a few missing teeth.
“Enjoying your visit?” he asked before continuing further down toward the low shrubbery.
“The new additions to the pathway are nice,” I said.
“I noticed you removed the fox statue that used to be by the gate,” Mama said. “I found that very disappointing.”
For some reason, the man ignored Mama, and instead turned to me, his eyes crinkled as the sun poked out from behind the clouds and beamed down on us.
“Best be off,” he said. “Must fish out the maple leaves that have fallen in the pond.”
We stayed a little while longer before heading home.
When we returned, I told Mama that I had a headache. She made me a wrap dipped in essential oils and placed it on my forehead while I rested on some cushions. The soothing smell of lavender and wild mint made me feel relaxed and sleepy.
I must have drifted off. When I woke up, it was nighttime.
“Mama?” I called out to the dark room. “Mama, where are you?” I waited to hear, right here, darling! It never came.
Our house seemed so cold. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized something wrong.
The room was torn to bits. The curtains were shredded, hanging limply from their poles, the tables overturned. The air smelled like rotten eggs, moldy carpet, and feces.
“Mama!” I cried.
There was no response.
I leaped up.
“Where are you?” I screamed.
I ran to the kitchen and fell onto my stomach. The floor was slippery, the wood looked rotten and eaten away.
I burst into tears.
“Help!” I croaked out.
Tom ran up to me and licked my cheek. I stared at him.
“Tom, what's happened to you?” His fur hung over his eyes, was matted on one side, and he smelled awful. “Oh Tom!” I cried, brushing back the fur from his head. “What's happening?”
Together, we moved through the house. I found that the windows were smashed, the food was rotting, and the porch¾our beloved porch¾was broken. There was a crack right down the middle like a giant fist had slammed down through the woodwork.
Tom ran up to the hole, looked down, and howled.
I pulled him away and went back inside to the cupboard. The broom in the closet was coated in a layer of dust. I wiped it off on my dress, went down the hall, and began to sweep away a broken vase.
I spent the night cleaning. I sobbed occasionally. Eventually, I fell asleep on the floor. When I woke up, the house remained in the same state of disarray, now with sunlight streaming in through the broken windows.
There was no breakfast.
I spent the morning in the forest, calling out Mama's name. I didn't find her, but noticed that the forest also seemed to be in a worse state than I remembered. Trees were split and on their sides, flowerbeds trampled, and the stones that lined the pathways were gone.
Instead of eating lunch, I hiked back out to the temple. Perhaps she was there, I could only hope. That was all I had left now. This time I ran up to the gate and raced up the stairs.
“Mama!” I screamed, running through the rooms, startling several people mid-prayer.
After I'd checked every room, I ran out to the gardens.
I called out for her, smashing the wildflowers with my boots and knocking over small sculptures. I ignored the damage. I had only one goal, one focus.
“Mama!” I screamed.
The man from the other day, the one in the brown robes, looked up at me from his spot underneath a willow tree and smiled.
“Hello! Lovely day isn't it?”
I ignored him, scanning the grounds.
“Are you alright?” he called out.
I turned to him. “No.”
“May I help?” he asked.
A thought came to me. “Have you seen my mother?”
His brow furrowed. “Your mother?”
“Yes. The woman I was here with the other day. You saw us. Remember?”
His face paled. “I remember you. But not your mother. You were alone.”
I glared at him. “No. She spoke to you. You said it was a lovely afternoon.”
His faced wrinkled as he shook his head. “I spoke to you, and you were alone.”
I clench my teeth. My fingers curled into fists, fingernails biting into my palms. “I wasn't!” I sank to the ground. “I wasn't.”
“Why don't you go back inside?” the man asked, moving in closer. “Perhaps someone inside can help you¾”
“No!” I shrieked, pounding into the dirt with my fists. “No! You're lying about yesterday, about Mama!” I began to cry. “Stop lying!”
The man looked alarmed.
“Is everything all right out there?” a man called out from the porch.
“Help me!” I cried. “Please, he's lying to me!” I said, pointing up to the man in the brown robes.
The man on the porch raced down to us. “Fumi, is that you?” the man asked.
I stared at his face. It was Akio. Mama knew him better than I did. He sold us our furniture.
“Fumi, what's wrong?”
“I can't find her!” I cried. I hit the dirt again with my fist. “She's gone!”
He crouched down. “Who?”
“Mama! She's gone!”
He frowned, “Fumi, what do you mean?”
“I can't find her! My house . . . our house is torn apart! And she's¾
“What's she talking about?” questioned the man in the brown robes.
Akio turned to look at him. “She's . . . she thinks . . . her mother's here.”
“No! She's gone! She's gone!”
“Yes, she is, Fumi,” he said gently, putting a hand my shoulder.
Your mother, your family, passed on.” Akio said.
I let out a wail, smacking away his hand, “No!”
“Fumi, I know the accident was very hard on you.”
“No!” I cried. “Kyoshi, he asked the other day about Mama¾”
I stare at him, pleading.
“Oh child,” he said quietly. “The typhoon got them too.”
“No!” I tore at the ends of my hair.
He stared down at me, expressionless. “Yes, child,” he said. Akio turned toward the man in the brown robes before telling him, “I hadn't realized how bad it's gotten. She's not a child and, even though she's been alone, I'd thought things were improving.”
I stared up at the clouds.
“But, what about the dreams?”
“They're coming for me!”
He sighed. “Who?”
“Demons,” I whispered. “The snake woman.”
“No,” he said softly.
I closed my eyes. I couldn't take seeing the pity etched into his face.
He was wrong, he had to be.
“Please, Fumi,” he said, Akio stood up and offered me his hand. “Stop this madness.”
I stared up at him, “You're wrong, they're coming for me.”
He glanced over at the other man and gestured for him to come closer. “I know, child. I know.”
They led me back into the temple as the people gathered around outside staring openly, but I didn't care. They led me down the halls, all the way back to a small room, and motioned for me to rest on a green couch. The man in brown robes offered me a patchwork quilt that was ragged at one end.
I wrapped myself up and sank back into the cushions.
“Try to rest,” said Akio.
I wanted to reply, but my body wouldn't stop shaking. I didn't understand any of it.
When the two men walked away, I closed my eyes. They were wrong. Mama always said men were great deceivers. That was it, they were lying! But¾I started to remember.
It'd been six months. Six months since the storms had struck, destroying the house, and taking away my mama. Instead of staying home to care for her, I'd gone outside to hike through the forest. I'd told Mama I was going to run errands, a pointless excuse to get out of the house¾and Kyoshi! I'd run into him on my way back.
Maybe, if I hadn't stopped¾but I'd wanted to stop, I'd wanted to see him. Maybe if I hadn't, Mama would still be with me.
The tears returned.
Mama had struggled so much by the end, just like she said grandma had. It came on sudden. Just like the dreams had taken her, they'd begun to take Mama, too.
I'd spent countless nights waking up in darkness, the sky still pitch-black outside. I'd rub the sleep from my eyes and force myself out of bed. I would hear her whispering, talking about monsters, demon women that were coming for her. When she'd let me, I'd guide her back to bed, but sometimes she'd become hysterical and begin screaming.
I'm so sorry, Mama, it was an accident. Nothing more.
We'd known the storm was coming, I'd tried my best to board up the house, Mama had even seemed lucid that day.
“I'll see you soon, darling,” she'd called out to me as I walked out of the house without looking back.
The rain was already heavy by the time I'd gotten back, and the winds were too strong. I should have stopped her from running outside. I shouldn't have argued, or yelled, as she ran further away. I didn't mean it, Mama¾the things I said.
I choked on my breath. The tears wouldn't stop.
“Mama,” I whispered. “I want to see you, I miss you¾so much.”
I grabbed the cushion and buried my face into it.
“I'm right here, darling!”
I looked up, but the room remained empty.
Wiping away tears, I dabbed at the wet spots on the cushion before I rested it behind my head. I was tired now, so tired that I felt as if I could sleep for the next hundred years. I shut my eyes and waited.
I dreamed, and in my dreams came the women, with their snake mouths, masks, and talon-like nails. As I stared at the crowd, the small creature wearing the yellow and blue robe stepped forward and removed her mask.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
I felt tears run down my cheeks. Even with a forked tongue, and bone jutting out from her skull, I still recognized my mama.
The women smiled at me and this time when they smiled, I was not afraid. My mama beckoned me, and without fear, I stepped forward.
The women came, circling me like prey. Their tongues slid out, ready to devour. They hissed, and their nails scraped my cheeks.
I knew what they wanted.
They wrapped themselves around me. Their skin sticking to mine felt ice-cold. They wanted me to let them in. They wanted to be inside of me¾mind, body, and spirit belonging to these dark monstrous creatures. So, I let them take me.
“I love you, Mama,” I whispered to the nothingness before the world around me went black.