“Mother I’ve come to record some sounds.”
“I’ve come to record sounds. Your sounds.”
“Just a second dear.”
“Mother, I want us to put aside some of our differences so that you can make sounds into the recorder without perjuring yourself.”
“Differences? We don’t have any differences.”
“For sure we have differences.”
“Name me one.”
“Like the time you ate my birthday cake in tenth grade. For example.”
“Oh God. That trifling little episode is still on your mind?”
“You ate the entire cake in front of my friends. You went into a coma.”
“Years later and I’m still rocking this dress. Look!”
The mother spins around.
“Yes, you’re very beautiful.”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry. I see what this is about.”
“You not being endowed with my good looks. You must hold a terrible grudge.”
“I don’t hold anything.”
“Now your sister…”
“I’m perfectly content the way I am, mother.”
“She’s got those curly locks.”
“My self-esteem is at ordinary, respectable levels.”
“And deep-set eyes. Sailors across the world have composed paeans to them, did you know?”
Serena turns from her mother and looks into the mirror, touching her brow.
“Mine are just as deep-set.”
“Yours are hollowed,” her mother says. “Not quite the same thing.”
“Well, that’s fine.”
“Don’t bottle up your anger dear, it’s unhealthy.”
“I’m not bottling anything.”
“You should really try opening up about those insecurities you have with your sister.”
“Maybe see a therapist?”
“Well, if you want you can talk to me anytime—”
“She’s a bitch!”
“There you go. Let it all out.”
“She’s a dirty wench! Plus her feet are malformed and grotesque. Curved like shells.”
Tears are streaming down Serena’s face, a welling of repressed feeling.
“At least she’s married,” her mother says.
“Yeah, to a bone-headed marine.”
“She has a house.”
“In the backwaters of Utah!”
Serena blows her nose and regains her composure.
“Do you need a moment to cool down?” her mother asks. “Take your time. Say, isn’t that recorder of yours turned on?”
“Yes I suppose it is,” Serena says.
“The little green light is blinking.”
“That’s how you know it’s on.”
“Right. So what sounds are these you need?”
“I’ve got them.”
Serena is satisfied with the sounds she has recorded of herself, crying.
“Hey, it’s that naked woman again,” her mother says.
“A woman. Naked. In the apartment across the street.”
“Oh I see.”
“She always exercises in the morning, every day. Up against the window.”
“Sometimes she’ll make herself a smoothie.”
“As naked as skinned kittens.”
“She’s reclining on the couch now.”
“She likes doing that too.”
“Reading a paperback.”
“I suppose that is what one does.”
Serena, in the studio, with her closest friend:
“Explain all this to me,” asks Mack, waving his hands over the diorama and the camcorder positioned in front of it.
“Those are all candles, in the shape of couples.”
“Oh girl, that’s fabulous!”
“I haven’t told you what it is yet.”
“Just being polite.”
“Each candle is shaped like two lovers embracing.”
“With wicks on their heads?”
“Yes, like their heads are on fire.”
Serena plays back the video of the candles, in the shape of people, burning.
“And this is your art project?”
Ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui ui.
“What is that?” asks Mack.
“I’ve looped the sounds of crying over the video.”
Serena stops the video, then turns on her recorder.
“You’re right. It needs more wailing.”
“By the by,” says Mack, “I saw your boyfriend the other day. Hubba-hubba!”
“On screen. I saw his movie.”
“The Metal Detector?”
“The one where he plays around in a cassock for an hour and a half.”
“I’m not sure which one you mean.”
“The one with the roguish preacher who falls in love with three different women, all at once.”
“Priests In The Prime Of Their Lives?”
“Yes, that one. Girl, he’s got some body.”
“He’s a sweetheart.”
“Those hot sizzling muscles.”
“We’ve only been going out for a few weeks—”
“Makes me want to lick high-caloric food substances off his chest.”
“—but I think we’re in love.”
“Ha-ha. No, seriously.”
“Seriously what?” asks Serena
“No I just mean. He’s a little out of your league, isn’t he?”
“He’s just a cut above. That’s all I’m saying. Like if he’s marbled beef then you’re more like… like scrap meat.”
Serena starts wailing.
“Oh there, there. I didn’t mean.”
“Mack that’s terrible,” she says, sniffling.
“I said if. If.”
Serena goes to an art gallery to pitch her project. The place is in Chelsea, with large, beveled windows looking out onto Seventh Avenue. She speaks to the gallery owner.
“The soundtrack is composed of layered sounds,” she says. “That one’s me crying. That’s a neighbor of mine who dropped a hammer on his foot. And see, though the couples are hugging, they are also burning and screaming.”
The gallery owner nods gravely.
“It’s a commentary on the futility of love,” he says. “The ways in which we are extending ourselves to each other but, alas, there is no guarantee of joy or pleasure or peace. Oh, haven’t we all been mired in failed relationships. Oh, unhappy unity!”
The gallery owner tears up, so moved he is by the project.
“I love this, Serena,” the owner says, edging forward in his seat. “I want you to do more, take it further! Really push the limits. Really get out there.”
The gallery owner takes her by the hand and introduces her to the other art pieces in his gallery. While they talk, Serena thinks she spots her boyfriend across the street. He’s with another girl—a blond with curved hips, wearing a silky, springy dress—but she thinks nothing of it.
“How are you Serena?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Oh, getting there. Getting there.”
“You look peaky,” Serena says.
“Well I guess I do feel a bit peaky, yes. But, you know, being as I am in the middle of labor, I think the peakiness is normal.”
“What’s this one? Number five?”
“Six round, nubby babies!”
“Serena, I heard from your mother that you’re dating a strapping young actor now, is this correct?”
“Yes he’s lovely. It’s been a month now.”
“I know why you’re here.”
Serena takes the opportunity to place her recorder on the table next to a wooden dancing female in a hoop skirt.
“You’re probably wondering how I, your grandmother, have managed to remain so fertile throughout all these years.”
“I’ll tell you. There’s no real easy way to say this.”
“Gran, the baby’s crowning.”
“As I said, there’s no easy way of telling you this. I’m a witch.”
“You’re a witch?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“The fact that an octogenarian is having a sixth baby in front of you is not proof enough?”
The baby lands on the bed and shrieks like a prehistoric bird. Serena points the recorder in the general direction of its unearthly mouth.
“Fine. So you’re a witch.”
“Your mother also told me that your boyfriend is a very handsome and well-known actor.”
“Serena, is this fresh-faced and distinguished fellow faithful to you? Do you see yourself with him in five years? Do you want to bear his children?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that, Gran.”
“Say no more. I’ve made you a potion.”
“It’s easy. It’s delicious. I’ll tell you how I made it.”
Grandmother Pachaw hands her a vial.
“It’s green. Why is it green?”
“Duck milk, simmered until it begins to curdle. Added to that some clay, a piece of ceramic tile, the white kind, and stolen army boots. And the skin of a bootlegger.”
“Ew, that’s gross!”
“Bootlegger skin usually does turn people off. But trust me. It’ll solve your problems. He’ll be as faithful as a mule. And you’ll be popping out those babies in no time!”
Serena is starting to feel drained by her regular day job. She loiters all day outside the Ritz-Carlton with her camera, waiting to snap pictures of celebrities, a paid paparazzo. This is how she first met her boyfriend, the actor. She’d followed him to his house and he invited her in for a cocktail. She was coy, but she accepted.
Today, nobody is coming out of the Ritz-Carlton. Whatever celebrities are in there have bunkered down for the weekend, lying in bed with hangovers, migraines, arms draped over their faces. Serena leans against a bike rack and thinks about her art project. It’s left her wounded. In the past few weeks she’s talked to friends and family, distant relatives, all of whom have bared their teeth and sharp elbows. They tell her she needs this, she needs that. A new career. How can you live as a stalker taking photos? Or, ha! an artist? You’re an artist now?
She’s never cried so much in her life. She palms the vial in her pocket.
As she is considering this, her mother, as if trying to body-English her way into Serena’s thoughts, calls her cell phone.
In her mother’s apartment again:
“Mother, did you know Gran is a witch?”
“Of course she’s a witch dear. What did you think?”
“Well, nothing. One doesn’t ordinarily go around assuming people are witches.”
“Did she give you the potion?”
“Ah yes, I remember this one.”
“You’ve taken it before?”
“I’ve never swallowed it, good heavens, no. But when I was ten years old, I did fall into your grandmother’s cauldron. That is why, ever since, I’ve been a lesbian.”
“A ten-year-old lesbian daughter of a witch. You can’t have had many friends.”
“So, mother, why did you call me here today so urgently?”
“Oh rats, that reminds me. It’s nearly eleven. Stand by the window.”
“You’ll see in a few minutes.”
Serena walks over to the window of their sixth-floor walk-up. They wait a few minutes in silence. The clock ticks on the wall.
“How’s this project of yours coming along,” her mother asks.
“A gallery in Chelsea bought it the other day. Hey, there’s that naked woman again. Across the street.”
“Yes indeed. That’s her. She comes every day.”
“And there’s a man with her this time. A naked man.”
“Yes, the man is naked too.”
“They are embracing.”
Serena begins taking pictures, a professional reflex. She zooms in with her telephoto lens.
“Hey, does that man look to you like…”
“Yes, it does.”
“It is. I’ve seen it every day. This is what I brought you here to see.”
“But he tells me he’s at the gym!”
“He’s certainly getting exercise,” her mother chuckles.
Serena bursts into tears. Her mother puts an arm around Serena and cradles her head.
“Don’t worry about it too much, dear. Don’t cry. There are ways to fix this.”
A bloodless smile creeps into the mother’s face. She is anxious for her daughter to marry.
“Come,” the mother says. “Let’s get away from all this. Where’s the damned thing? Here. You’re ready for the potion now. Take it.”
Carlo Cattaneo Adorno is a writer from Brazil. His work has been published in FlatManCrooked and Lambda Literary. He is currently pursuing an MFA at The New School.