My earliest memory is of my mother lying dead in the bathtub, covered in blood.
I was five, maybe six. I had woken up in the night and walked across the corridor from my bedroom to the bathroom to get a drink of water. The door was closed. I opened it, stepped inside, wondered why the light was already on. The tiles were cold. I remember that. It’s funny how details like that stick in your head. Cold tiles, soft light, silence.
I went straight to the basin. Reached for the tap. Glanced in the mirror and saw her. Mummy. Naked in the tub, water reaching only to her navel. Still. Eyes closed. Bleeding. I screamed.
Her eyes opened, because of course she wasn’t dead. I kept on screaming as she got up, splashing red-tinged water on the floor, grabbed her robe and pattered across the tiles to slam and lock the door. And then I stopped screaming, because logic kicked in. Mummy was alive and well and looked somewhat annoyed that I had interrupted her bloody bath and then screamed blue murder in the middle of the night.
She shushed me, knelt down, still pulling the robe over her nakedness, but not quickly enough to prevent me seeing the gashes on her upper arms, her thighs, her sides. Like she was a chicken breast someone had carved up, ready to soak in the seasoning.
I babbled. I was scared. Confused. What had happened? Why was she using this bathroom instead of her own? Who had hurt her? Why was she so calm?
Someone pounded on the door. My father. Sleepy and irritable, demanding to know what the problem was.
Nothing, Mummy told him. Just one of Selah’s monsters.
He left us, grumbling under his breath. I looked at my mother, waiting for her to explain. She did. She told me a story, as colourful as the folktales of our homeland, with their anthropomorphised animals and trickster gods. But this was a different story, about a god who never smiled, a god of steel and stone and cold sidelong glances. A god of knives and wounds and blood, and redemption, a god they called Aran.
She told me of times long past, before doctors in spotless wards, before potions and techno tricks and manipulative magic, when people treated their ailments through trial and error. Times of cutting and leeching to purify the blood. She told me of an angel coming to her in a dream with a message from Aran, a message she had no choice but to heed. To follow in the footsteps of those who went before, to bleed to heal what ailed her.
But we don’t believe in angels, I said, or in the god Aran. Daddy doesn’t like us to talk of gods.
She shushed me again, and told me Daddy didn’t like a lot of things. Kareaan believes, she said. Isn’t that enough?
And I nodded because I loved Kareaan, my paternal grandmother, and didn’t want to shame her by disparaging her faith. But I didn’t understand. I was too young, my soul too dappled with rainbow prisms. I held onto my mother and pretended to agree, to believe her, because she needed me to. But I knew she had lied. There was no angel, no message. She had decided to bleed all on her own.
Did it work? I asked her. Are you healed now?
She held me tight against her and said, Yes.
But that was a lie, too.