The round thing in the middle of the ceiling started to glow, and orange specks seeped through their eyelids. It was morning, so they got up. The room was big enough for each of them to have their own space. Still, they slept huddled in a pile on the middle of the floor, resting their head on the stomach, or leg, or arm of whoever was closest.
“Yaw koe ihs ing my mouf.”
“What?” said Nicholas.
“Nod ewe. Daniel.”
“What?” said Daniel.
Felicity bit down hard. Daniel yelped and scrambled to free himself from the litter of body parts. He rubbed the teeth marks out of his big toe while Nicholas and Felicity stretched and yawned the sleep out of their bodies.
Daniel, Nicholas, and Felicity. Brother, brother, and sister. Husband, husband, and wife. Servant, servant, and queen. Larry, Curly, and Moe. They were all of these things to each other, all at the same time.
Their world was simplicity epitomized. There was the room. Beige walls; grey carpet; round, glowing thing on the ceiling; brown door, silver knob. There was each other. None of them had a single memory that didn’t include the other two. And there was Mama. Mama was kind, loving, and wise.
The door opened and She walked in with their breakfast. They had always known that She was different than they were. Even when they were still very young and had no concept of strong and weak or smart and dumb, they understood same and different. “We are us, and She isn’t,” was one of the first thoughts they developed. “We belong to this world, and She, to another.”
Whenever She came to them, they rushed to Her, to touch the roughness of Her skin, feel the textures of Her clothes. Everything about Her was so different. So awe-inspiring and mystical. Mama was magic. Pure, eternal, perpetual magic.
When they were little, and gathered around Her, they rubbed their faces on Her legs and stomach. Now, they rubbed Her cheeks with theirs, and put their noses close to her mouth so they could smell her breath. They didn’t notice the wrinkly looseness of Her skin or see the new strands of silver in Her hair.
Today, breakfast was a brown, lumpy porridge. All they ever ate was brown, lumpy porridge. Eating, to them, was like breathing. Just as they needed the colourless, odourless, nothingness of oxygen, they needed their mush. She put the bowls on the floor and they poured the tasteless slop down their throats. When they were done eating, She turned to leave. Before She could open the door Nicholas called out, “Mama, what do you want from us?”
She looked back over Her shoulder, “I want you to be good.” She walked out of the room and closed the door behind Her.
Daniel and Felicity looked at him with blank faces. Then Daniel and Nicholas looked at Felicity. “What does she mean by that, Felicity?” asked Daniel. They figured she should know. She was like Her. They had the same body parts and same voice.
“She wants us to be good,” she said. They waited for more. “To make Her happy.”
“But how do we make Her happy?” asked Nicholas, “What can we do for Her? We don’t have anything.”
“She doesn’t need us to do anything for Her. She can do everything for Herself. She wants us to do things for each other. That’s why there are three of us, so that we can take care of each other. That’s being ‘good.’”
“So we’re supposed to be nice to each other?” asked Nicholas, “As opposed to what?”
There was no tree of knowledge in the middle of the room. No forbidden fruits or serpents. It was just the three of them, Mama, and the little peek of outside they got whenever She opened the door.
“What do you think is out there?” Nicholas asked one night after dinner, when the big round thing on the ceiling had stopped glowing. They were huddled in their pile.
“Don’t start this again,” said Felicity, “There is nothing out there. Everything that matters is here, in this room with us.”
“How do you know?”
“Mama told me.”
“No She didn’t. When did She tell you? Why didn’t we hear?”
“She didn’t use words. She spoke to me in our language.”
That was always her answer. She said that she and Mama had a special bond. Nicholas and Daniel always believed her because she had a hint of the same kind of magic Mama had – that differentness. But, these nights, Nicholas spent less time sleeping, and more time looking at the door. Like a child lying on his back looking at the stars, he would stare at the door, its hinges and knob.
From somewhere by his feet Daniel asked, “Why are you always asking these questions? What are you trying to do?”
“I’m not trying to do anything. I just want answers.”
“You wouldn’t need answers if you stopped asking questions.”
Nicholas knew this was true. He wasn’t as happy as he used to be. He tried to turn the questions off. He longed for the quiet that once filled his mind. But it was like there was a little person living inside his head and no matter how Nicholas tried to shut him up, this little person would keep talking and talking until his words poured out of Nicholas’ own mouth.
It was an unfamiliar feeling for them. They had no clock or sun to tell them what time it was, but the dull cramping sensation in their belly told them that breakfast was late. Not very late, but late enough for the pains to move from their stomachs to their heads, creating all kinds of explanations for Mama’s absence.
“See what you caused,” said Felicity, “You have to stop. No more questions, no more doubts. You’re going to make Mama stop loving us.”
Nicholas thought about that. Could he, with just his mind, change Mama? Manipulate and mold her into something that she had never been? Did he have that kind of power, that kind of control?
Mama was different. Not just different from them, different from how She used to be. She had changed, and they had noticed. The day when She first brought their breakfast late was just the beginning. She was late more and more often now. What was once an indescribable feeling in their stomach now had a name. Hunger. They had gotten used to it, begun expecting it. She looked different too. It might have been how quickly it occurred, or maybe it had something to do with Nicholas wielding his questions, aiming at Her magic, but now it was a difference they noticed. She was smaller, thinner than She was supposed to be. Her skin hung loosely from Her body, holding onto the shrinking muscle underneath. Her smell was different too. It used to be sweet, comforting. Now, if they knew the word they would have called it a stench.
“You have to stop!” said Felicity. “You’re hurting Her! Hurting us!” Daniel stood behind her, giving his silent support. “You’re not being good anymore.”
“Good? Why do you get to decide what’s good or not? Maybe this is good. Maybe by hurting Her, I’m helping us.”
“No. I know what’s good. She told me. I know!”
“Yes, you know, you always know. Well, I don’t care what you think She tells you. None of it means anything to me.”
Felicity screamed. It was a loud throaty scream, one that made Daniel shudder, and Nicholas flinch. They would have to create a word for this new emotion. This pure, deep, intense, unhappiness.
Daniel started to cry and ran into a corner of the room. Felicity glared at Nicholas for a second longer before she turned to follow Daniel. The curled into each other on the floor. Daniel whimpered and Felicity purred that everything would be okay.
They didn’t sleep in a pile that night. The glow from the round thing found Daniel balled up tightly with his head on Felicity’s stomach. Nicholas was by himself in front of the door. He had spent the night thinking, trying to make sense out of the person in his head. Was it really him that was doing it to Her? Was he the reason why when She brought their food, She was humped over? Was it his fault that She never spoke to them anymore? Why whenever She opened her mouth, instead of words out came dry hacking painful sounds? Was he causing Her to move so slowly, and tremble as She put their bowls down?
“Where do you think She came from?” he asked out loud.
“Stop it,” said Daniel, “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it! I don’t want to hear anymore! No more of your questions!” He was close to tears again.
Nicholas looked at him, all curled up on Felicity, holding onto her tightly, wiping his tears on her thigh. “Why are you so afraid?” he asked him, “What’s the worst thing that She could do to us?”
Daniel answered without looking at him, “I’m not afraid of Her, I’m afraid of being without Her.”
The door opened and She shuffled in with their food. The bowls were bigger than usual. She put them down on the floor, and left before they were finished eating.
They ate cold mush for lunch, and hard, cold mush for dinner. When the mush was done, they licked the bowls. And when the bowls were clean, they starved.
That day went on forever. The round thing in the middle of the ceiling never stopped glowing. At first, their bodies told them when to sleep and when to be awake, but as the hunger dug deeper they found themselves sleeping all the time. None of them knew how to describe how they felt. They had no words for the pain, and worry, and sadness all rolled into one feeling.
Nicholas wondered why during all those years they had never tried. Why they had never even thought about it. He stood up slowly and tried to gather enough strength.
“Nicholas, please. Don’t.” Daniel’s voice came out in a whisper.
Felicity stared at him, her gaze as sharp as glass, but it was all she could do. The dryness in her throat would not allow her to yell anymore. Daniel burrowed his face into her lap.
“Why are you doing this?” asked Felicity.
Not because he finally found a reason to, but because he could no longer find a reason not to.
Nicholas opened the door.
•••Keisha Lynne Ellis feels as though writing may very well be her only hope for gaining and maintaining sanity in a world entrenched in absurdity. She writes short stories, spoken word poetry and critical essays.