Mother

July 6, 1982. A picture of the Swiss Alps on a calendar on the kitchen wall, next to the icons. A kantili casts a flickering light over the icons, causing the saints to dance. She crosses herself.

Then, licking a finger, she touches it to the iron to see if it’s hot enough.

Her daughter, Eleni, is in the next room with the door closed. Late in the afternoon Eleni had come home from school clutching her lower abdomen and gone straight to bed. The mother had heated a can of Campbell’s soup and stood by the bedroom door with a plate and a napkin, but the door was latched. This was hours ago. Who ever heard of a daughter buying a latch and installing it on her bedroom door, under her parents’ roof?

In about an hour her husband will come in, after the evening shift. He’ll unlace his shoes and take them off, then unpeel his socks and groan with fatigue. Then she’ll have to tell him: Eleni came in and was sick, something with her stomach. She hasn’t had a bite or come out of her room. Maybe he’ll say something about taking her to the hospital.

The mother takes a shirt from the pile and thinks about this possibility. The possibility of doctors.

She makes sure her husband wears a clean and freshly ironed shirt every day. She buys them at Eaton’s, during the end-of-season sales. There’s no point buying good shirts if you don’t know how to iron them. Her own mother taught her when she was a girl and they lived in the village. Always begin with the collar and cuffs, and then press the seams on the sleeves, stretching the seams just ahead of the hot iron so the sleeves come out just right. Next, press the front plackets, followed by the two side seams on the body of the shirt. That’s the frame, her mother had explained. It’s like building a house: you want it to be straight and solid. Once you get all the seams straight, the rest is easy. The shirt practically irons itself.

One day she came home from an errand in the agora and a young man was sitting by the fire with her parents.

“Here she is,” they announced to the young man.

They had no electricity in their village, except in the agora, so her mother had taught her how to iron using the big heavy iron they kept on a low stool. The top of the iron was hinged so you could fill it with glowing embers from the fire. You’d latch the iron shut and wait for it to get hot, but sometimes it would get too hot so you had to be careful not to scorch the clothes. Her mother had shown her how to use a damp cloth between the iron and the clothes you’re ironing. She remembered the sharp hiss as the hot iron touched the cloth, and the cloud of steam rising up, like a soul returning to its maker.

She crosses herself. This was a long time ago.

What would her husband say when he got home? He might ask about the boy: the one Eleni had been seen with on Jean-Talon Street. A nosy neighbour had spotted them one evening, when Eleni said she was at Anna’s house. Others had seen them in the park, and going into a tall building on l’Acadie. This afternoon, when her daughter came in, she had been clutching her midsection, looking sick, pale, wild-eyed.

The mother sets her iron down and goes to Eleni’s door and listens for a long time. Eventually she knocks.

“What?” says a muffled voice.

The mother breathes a sigh of relief.

“I thought you might be hungry,” she says. “I have a plate of soup for you, my love.”

“Go away.”

Maybe it’s just as well if she doesn’t tell her husband too much. Eleni is in bed with a bit of a cold. She’ll be fine for school in the morning, once she gets some rest. You’ll see.

He’ll tell her to get him a beer, then sit at the kitchen table staring at Eleni’s door.

The radio is on in the background. She watches TV sometimes, but when she irons she likes to have the radio on. It helps her with her English at the factory. Everyone at work speaks better than she does: the Italians and the Portuguese and the other Greek ladies. But there are some new ladies, too. They have dark skins and their food has a smell.

She notices a word they keep repeating on the radio, and she knows it’s important but can’t make any sense of it. From the kitchen drawer she retrieves a small Greek-English dictionary, and it takes a while to find the word. “Eclipse” — not so different from the Greek word after all, if you just move the accent.

Go outside, the man on the radio says excitedly. Go outside right now and look up at the sky. It won’t be like this again for years. You really have to see this, he says.

It’s a clear summer night. She goes out on the balcony but sees nothing in the sky. But right below, several neighbours are standing in the middle of the street, under a streetlight. They’re pointing at the sky behind her. The balcony is facing the wrong way, so she’ll have to go downstairs. Back inside, she presses her ear to her daughter’s door one more time, then slips down the stairs.

In the sky, it’s as the man said. The moon is a bruised red and seems to throb in the night sky. The mother crosses herself and feels frightened. No one else is on the street now. She feels alone, as if she is the only mother in the world, staring up at the only blood red moon in all of creation.

She climbs the stairs to the apartment and turns off the radio. The kantili has gone out and the saints have ceased their dance.

She has just finished ironing her husband’s shirts and begun on her daughter’s things, when she hears front door open and she knows her husband is home.