She has a request, the mother tells her children. She cannot put the request in her will, because it’s probably illegal.
All five of her grown children stand around the edges of her hospital bed and listen, not knowing what to do with their hands. Their mother is not dead yet, but they can tell she will be soon. They can tell by the bruises spreading under her skin around the needles in her arms, like a purple-black oil of death welling up from inside her.
Yes, they say, fiddling with the lint in their pockets, bunching the corner of the sheet in their hands, digging red crescents into their arms with their fingernails.
Yes, they say. Anything.
What she wants, she tells them, is to be eaten by her children when she dies.
The children stand still and white as salt pillars. None of them knows what to say, except the third child, who says, What?
There are many ways they can do this, the mother continues. They don’t have to carve her up and eat her like beef. She understands that would be hard to handle. They could mix her in with other food, some sort of pot pie or meatloaf. Or perhaps the best option would be to cremate her and take the urn home-thus going through legitimate channels and not arousing suspicion about the disposal of the body, which the government regulates, you know-and then stir the ashes into their food or beverages. But if they go the cremation route, she says, they’ll need to stand outside the crematorium downwind of the vapor (it will be vapor instead of smoke, so hot she will be turned to air) and breathe deeply from their diaphragms, like she taught them to do when they played instruments in the high school band.
Don’t worry, she tells them. It will not be that hard. She is a small woman, and there is not much meat left on her, not much of her left.
The mother hangs on for a few more weeks before dying. After she dies, the children dress in black and gather behind the crematorium at a time they previously arranged with the man who turns on the oven. They breathe deeply from their abdomens like their mother had taught them on the trumpet, flute, trombone, flute again, oboe, pulling air deep into their cores, holding it there, breathing it out into the perfect, drawn-out, trilling note. They bring their families for more lungs and instruct them on breathing from their diaphragms. Their children and spouses look at them, breathing deeply as instructed, confused.
When the children receive their mother’s ashes, they parcel her out into Mason jars, wishing they had chosen something opaque so they would not have to see the horrible white-ish powder of her, like powdered sugar, but then they would have had to face that eventually, anyway, when they put her in their food. As the second child, who is a minister, scoops their mother into the jars with a coffee scooper, it reminds her of Communion, and she thinks, This is the body, given for you.
The first child consumes her all at once in a protein shake, in which the ash blends right in with the grit of the protein powder. He chokes her down and gets it over with. He drinks her so fast he gets a brain freeze, and presses his knuckles into his temples, and closes his eyes, and groans.
The second keeps the ashes on her table in a sugar bowl with a little spoon and adds her to every dish like a condiment. For two months, until she’s done, her food carries the chalky aftertaste of calcium, and she sucks her tongue, cleansing it, savoring it.
The third bakes her into a coconut-chocolate-banana bread, a recipe passed down from her mother. The ash adds an aftertaste of carbon and makes the texture more like multi-grain, but it still tastes fine. Her daughters eat two pieces before she notices. When she sees them on the couch with the slices, catching the crumbs in their palms, watching the TV and laughing, she does not stop them.
The fourth puts her behind the flour in his pantry and leaves her there.
The last keeps her in a special tin he brought back from Rome and places her beside the salt and pepper and puts just a dash in his dinner at night, just a little, a grain, a modicum, trying to make her last for the rest of his life, or at least as long as he can.
Think of how meaningful it will be, their mother had said to them before she was ashes in their mouths. There’s poetry to it. They came from her, and now she will return into them. It seemed only fitting, didn’t it, to be dispersed into her children, parceled out in them, consumed and buried and resurrected in them.
It was three months after her husband left that the black ooze first dripped in a long black string from the hood over her stove and into the pot of spaghetti she was stirring, coiling among the noodles like a dark worm. She had been searching for the smell for a week, peering behind the fridge for rotting food, under furniture and in the backs of closets for dead mice. “If he hadn’t left, he would know what to do,” she said to her mother on the phone. “Call the exterminator,” her mother told her.
The exterminator came and reported that the ooze was from layers of bat guano that had gathered for months in the attic. The bats were getting in through an attic vent with improper screening, he said, easily fixable. The problem was the babies. “Can’t you just kill them all?” she said. “Can’t you just get them out of my house?” But no, bats were protected by the state and he couldn’t exterminate them. They were an important part of the ecosystem, the exterminator said. They kept the insect population under control. They had to wait until all the babies were old enough to fly, and then when they all left the nest at twilight and the attic was empty, he would seal it so they couldn’t get back in. If they did it now, he said, the babies would die in there and she’d have an even bigger problem than she already had. The woman was left with instructions to sit in her backyard every night and count the bats as they dived out of her attic until all 46 were flying.
So during the day, the woman boiled water in fear, eyes frequently darting into the hood’s shadowed vent. She called her sister and had long conversations in which she would repeat, “Maybe I should sell the house. What do I need a whole house for? Three bedrooms for a single woman with no children.” And the sister would make shushing sounds and say, “It’ll pass. The bats will be gone in a few weeks. You’ll move on.” At sunset, the woman sat on a lawn chair pulled to the far end of the yard and waited for the bats to drop out of the slats of the attic vent and into the purple air, their silent bodies dipping deep toward the yard and then rising and rising until she could no longer distinguish them from the dark. She tallied them in a small notebook, one slash for each fetid creature to remove from her life. She would fall asleep thinking of the small hanging babies above her, furred bodies tucked close together, folded inside their wings.
In the second week, she threw out all her contaminated pots, moved the microwave to the living room, bought a dozen frozen dinners and heavy-duty cleaning supplies. Her best friend stopped by to see how she was doing, and they drank mimosas at the family-sized dining room table, the woman not wanting to enter the kitchen, the floor recently mopped again, the smell of pine lying transparently over the guano. “I just want them gone,” she told her friend. “I want to forget they were ever there.”
After another week, she called a contractor, deciding that extermination wasn’t enough. She needed an entirely new room in order to not remember the smell when the ooze dripped into her burners, the small roaches that had started dropping into her pots, the bleach-dipped sponges she used to scrub every surface until the sponges broke apart and her hands chapped and split open. The contractor brought over catalogs of kitchen appliances and granite and tile. He made preliminary sketches on grid paper, showing her what she could have. She spread the sketches and catalogs on the kitchen table and took comfort in imagining the new double stainless steel sink with a garbage disposal, the new dishwasher that would actually dry her dishes thoroughly so she didn’t have to follow with a towel, the stove she could fit a whole turkey in, if she ever had reason to cook a turkey. She called her mother and sister and best friend and said, “I’m taking back my house. I’m starting over.”
The remodeling progressed, and the woman watched the removal of her stove with a sense of relief, sneaked through the plastic tarp hung over the kitchen door at night and smiled at the gutted ribs of her kitchen, the exposed pipes, the concrete under the torn-up floor. She watched with hope the installation of the new granite counters, the new backsplash of decorative ceramic tile, the hardwood floor instead of linoleum, the chrome fixtures, the brand-new top-of-the-line stove and hood. Eventually, all 46 bats were flying, the babies diving after their parents, and the exterminator came at nightfall and cleaned out the guano and nailed a screen behind the vent while the bats were out. “You could put up a bat house,” he said. “They’re great for mosquitoes in summer.” But the woman said no, she hated bats, she wanted them gone for good. “Good riddance!” she said.
And then the day finally came that construction was complete, the day when she would finally able to forget the dark leak of rot from above, the chasing of beetles and roaches under the cabinets, the quiet swoop of boned wings in the cool air, the day when she could erase her memory with a new color palette, when she could stand in the center of a whole new room. She walked into her new kitchen, and there was nothing left, only cool tile and hard chrome.