J A Tyler is author of the novel

The Zoo, A Going as well as several earlier books of poetic hybrid.

Previous work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden's Ferry Review, Black Warrior Review, and Denver Quarterly.

He teaches high school in Colorado.

Our Mother, in Unworn Dresses

posted Sep 1, 2015

The rain in this township is constant. Dusk and dawn bring the same clouds, sparse and dense in turn, always the moon or sun begging through them. Water runs down the gutters, making rivulets in the streets then joining the sea, mingling in its salt. Water seeps into the lawns, the soil dark as pitch. Bats cluster and dive, gulls hover while calling out, their glassine eyes darting.

Our windows open onto the bay where we hope to find the masts of Our Father's ship. He doesn't arrive, but we watch anyway, rain cross‐hatching our vision. We want his sails to appear below this township, these houses jigsawed together along wet streets, rain perpetually thrumming the pebbled shore. If Our Father did show there, out in the sea, we'd bail down the driveway with Our Mother at the jeep's helm . She'd be as fraught as us twin boys in the backseat. Her eyes would strain through the windshield, negotiating the curves she's followed a thousand times before, though only a few days in those thousand has Our Father actually arrived, so seldom someone to in fact pluck from the shore.

So Our Mother sews. Our Mother adds lunches to brown paper sacks. Our Mother cooks soup in a kettle, makes jam for jars. And Our Mother reads books on mummification, watches what television program s she can find on the subject. Our Mother practices on a stray cat. Our Mother opens and recombines a bat and a seagull. And then Our Mother takes her craft to Billy, a boy from this rainy township who couldn't keep his mouth shut.


Billy liked to scare us with ghost stories. Our Mother refuted them all, but she grew weary of the exercise. Billy says everyone has a ghost in them, we told her. Billy says we'll marry a ghost, we told her. Billy says you're already half a ghost and when you turn we'll be left all alone.

Our Mother doesn't wear the dresses she makes. She only hangs them in a closet full of others, each beautifully sewn. Our Mother is a grand seam stress. She only doesn't wear her dresses because they're meant for women who are loved, and she can't bring herself to believe in a magic that hearty.

Billy Schmilly, Our Mother said, and that was the last we heard of it.

Then Billy disappeared from the neighborhood, his bicycle draped where he'd left it. We looked in the usual places: the gas station where he liked to buy candy from the lowest shelves; the shore where he skipped rocks into waves; the hillside where sometimes beside the boughs of wet spruce he'd stand and look over the whole fog covered township, saying to no one but him self: This whole town's one big ghost.


We are sad. We can't help it. Our Mother calls sadness a disease. She says the whole township is infected. She says if it isn't the fishermen falling overboard, claim ed by the waves, it's the pirates, gallivanting off for islands and rubies and spending more time with inked men than their own sons. She speaks from experience, and when she says it her heart is nearly visible under her skin.

We are sad, but it doesn't feel like a disease. It feels like anger at Our Father for loving the sea more than us. It feels like Our Mother having transparent arm s when she should hold tighter. It feels like this township, with its constant rain, is soaking into our bodies.

What fascinates Our Mother about mummification is how still in repose the bodies look, the glossy pictures in the books she's read, the images she's seen on television. The earliest versions of mummies, those children, even thousands of years later they seem calm and resonant in their black and red and muddied forms. They appear, to Our Mother, to wear faint smiles poised on their painted faces, a claim to still forever. Our Mother wants to know if all children can be paused like this, mummified, forever upheld beyond the world itself, captured before the sadness overwhelms them.


Billy was standing in a lawn across the street. He'd been chasing what looked like a mummified cat through the bushes, but it had disappeared around a corner. And before he'd taken off again, running to chase the bandages trailing from its back legs, Billy had seen a silhouette in the sky, and for some reason, he couldn't tell what it was. It was either a seagull or a bat, and he thought it peculiar he couldn't decide. The shadow above, its flight pattern simultaneously erratic and easy, seem ed both bat and gull. So he was standing there, in the wet grass, looking up into the drizzling sky, trying to decide, when Our Mother called to him.

Billy, Our Mother said, and he went to her. He crossed the wet street, sneakers treading, Our Mother with one hand on the door and the other on the frame.

Yeah? he asked, as he hit the sidewalk in front of our house, the lawn all that was left between him self and Our Mother.

I have something I'd like to talk to you about, Our Mother said, and she opened the front door all the way, revealing our hall and the kitchen table at its end, the bay windows and the tide beyond.

Okay, he said, and stepped inside.


We don't want to be sad, and more than that, we don't want Our Mother to see our sadness. We do our best to hide it. We play as boys play. We ride our bicycles. We plead for presents. We make faces at one another across the table. We yell through the house. And we take to the arcade every day, tumbling down its cave of blink and buzz.

But pirates are pirates at heart, and a mask only appends.

Our Mother knows. She's seen it since the beginning, understanding that the more we attempt to cover up, the more sadness we are revealing. She recognizes it behind our eyes. She looks into our faces at night, before bed, or at the table when we eat, or down deep in our bodies the moment before she shuts the front door, our bicycles ready for a ride to the arcade. She sees the disease of sadness branching through us.

To Our Mother, our sadness resembles an ancient ship atop waves, and she can see aboard it at least one of us in captain's garb, cutlass hanging and pistol holstered, a lot of tattooed men swarming over its planks. She can see how the waves sparkle with red, ruby crests instead of seething white foam , like blood in the water. In us, in both our sets of eyes, she sees this, an old ship leveled on the water, the ocean red tinged around it. Our Mother knows this is the pirate sadness that will undo us.

If only Our Father returned she thinks. If only Our Father was a father and not a pirate. If only the sea carried Our Father like a fisherman instead of a buccaneer, the leathern sack of rubies a net of caught fish, the glint of his silver tooth only a sparkle beneath a beard wet with spray. If only, Our Mother thinks, and then goes quiet, focusing down into what she can control.

Our Mother remembers the stars, the night she danced with Our Father, but she hasn't seen them since. All she sees right now is Billy, shirtless on the kitchen table, drops caressing the shingles above them , a scatter of tools on the counter. Our Mother is determined to pause the sadness in her boys before it becomes like the rain of this township: overwhelming.